Subjects: Opening regional NSW, China trade, COVID-19 inquiry
Peter Stefanovic: Joining me now, the Assistant Trade Minister Andrew Gee. Andrew good morning to you, thanks so much for joining us. First of all, these restrictions that are being eased in New South Wales from the first of June, your electorate west of Sydney, and those rural, regional areas, how much of an impact do you expect this to have?
Andrew Gee: Well, look, I think it’s a positive thing. I think, generally speaking, in our area, we have no active cases between Lithgow and Broken Hill and so I think our view out there is that we’ve done the hard yards. Everyone’s done the right thing. And we’re looking forward to the restrictions being ease. I mean I’m a big fan of the ‘regional bubble’ theory, in that I thought we could have the restrictions eased earlier in country Australia. Not only in New South Wales but up into Queensland, and if we had to, keep the big cities quarantined. And I still think we can do that but, look, I think, we’re on the right track but I think you can still make a case for easing the restrictions in country areas for example, as we have no active cases in central western and even western New South Wales, a lot of those businesses – the larger ones – like the RSL clubs and the ex-Services clubs, they’re going to find it very difficult to open. Even with twenty people being allowed in. So I think with the appropriate social distancing, you can still make the case for those restrictions being eased sooner in country areas.
Stefanovic: Well especially for those country areas, they were hit by a double whammy. You had the bushfires remember? I mean it seems so long ago but it wasn’t really. You had the bushfires in January, which means those areas particularly in the South Coast, have had an awful year so far.
Gee: It’s been terrible. I mean our electorate and our region has been on the frontline of that as well. The fires swept through Clarence and Dargan, through Lithgow, all the way up to Rilestone and the Bylong Valley so we’ve been on the frontline of it as well. We’ve also got these interstate issues still bubbling along as well, which has been very tough for country people as well. So for example, in my role as the Minister for Regional Education, I’m hearing stories of parents in the Northern Territory having great difficulties getting their kids to boarding schools in South Australia. It’s the same for families in New South Wales because they have to quarantine and so you’ve got parents on these vast properties and stations out in the Territory; they have to then leave their homes. Their kids, they’re not allowed to self-isolate at boarding school, this is not a luxury for them. These people live hundreds of kilometres away from their nearest large centres and so we’ve still have a lot of issues to work through and it is particularly difficult for country people. So, in terms of those interstate border issues, I just urge those state and territory governments, particularly like South Australia and the Northern Territory, to have a look at some of those educational issues and the hardship that is still being inflicted on country people because of them.
Stefanovic: Okay Andrew just onto trade matters. China has ended up supporting this inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, albeit begrudgingly-
Stefanovic: What’s your reaction to it?
Gee: Well, look, I think it’s terrific that what, over 130 people who co-sponsored the resolution, countries I should say, and that it was unanimous in the end, and I think it’s really important now that we can all move forward. All of the nations of the world can move forward and hopefully get to the bottom of this. I think it was a really positive outcome, it’s not a question of winners or losers because I think the reality is, there are no winners in COVID-19 and this pandemic. This has devastated lives, it’s devastated businesses, it’s devastated economies. And so I think it was a really positive result that everyone is now on the same page and working together so I think we should embrace that as a positive step forward and hopefully we can make sure that this never happens again because we’ll never see anything like this again in our lifetime, I hope we don’t. And one way we can ensure we don’t see it is by getting to the bottom of what happened and taking the appropriate measures to-
Stefanovic: Is this resolution legally binding though, I mean, do they have to go through with it in the end? China’s already said they’re not going to do it while the virus is still spreading, which you know, which could take a long way to go.
Gee: Well, look, I think it’s just a case of everyone working together and in good faith. We need everyone cooperating and all of the countries affected will no doubt have input and look, I think we’ve just got to take it in good faith and also I think work within the spirit of the resolution. I think all countries need to work within the spirit. It was a unanimous decision; it’s not often you get that type of cohesion with an international forum like that. So look, I think we need to stay positive about this and we just, every country will need to do their bit to make their contribution to working through this and I think we can do it.
Stefanovic: What about these comments from the Ambassador that it’s a joke for Australia to claim it’s been vindicated by all this international support for an inquiry?
Gee: Well, look, I think let’s not get bogged down in that. I mean, as I said, there are no winners in COVID-19 and this is a time when all countries need to be coming together and we actually saw that with this resolution. And so there are very few positives to come out of this but maybe all countries working together in the aftermath and into the recovery process is a positive that we can take out of it and as I said, another positive is taking steps to ensure we never ever have to go through this again because obviously, there are, you know, we’ve had people in our area tragically pass away from COVID-19. Much loved members of the community and so we never want to see that happening again. And we’ve got to make sure it never does.
Stefanovic: We’ve got the issue with barley at the moment, and they’re going to do it tough for a while now with 80 per cent tariffs placed on barley.
Stefanovic: Because no one was picking up the phone for Simon Birmingham, there has been claims this morning that perhaps you know, an envoy should be sent to China to try and sort it out. Maybe even someone like Dennis Richardson should be sent over to try and sort it out. Is that something you support?
Gee: Oh look, I think we’ll just work away at it. On different levels. So we’ll work away through our diplomatic channels, but we’ve also got the international trade referee as well, the World Trade Organisation. I mean, we’ve been there a lot. We’ve taken countries there; some countries have taken us there. So we’ve got the international referee at the end of the day but it’ll take some time to work through. But in the meantime, we’ll just keep on working on a dialogue at many different levels. I don’t think it has to be one particular thing, I think you can approach these things in many different ways. You know, the relationships and, the people to people relationships, are still very strong between Australia and China and so I think at this time, we’ve just got to back our farmers. And spare a thought for them. Those folks who’ve got barley in the ground, particularly in Western Australia. But look, trade is a two way street and there are benefits to both countries and so the benefit to China is, by having our barley, is that it helps brew great quality beer. And so potentially messing with the recipe of the world-famous Tsingtao - that may not be such a great result for Chinese beer lovers. Or beer lovers anywhere in the world. You mess with an Australian beer recipe, I know you’re going to be in trouble over here. So, look, I think it’s mutually beneficial and I think we’ve just got to calmly work through these issues in good faith and I think that’s what we’re going to do.
Stefanovic: Maybe someone like Dennis Richardson, who’s a respected diplomat, I mean does that idea at least have merit?
Gee: Oh, yeah look, I think if, you know, we should be looking at avenues like that. If that can assist, that may be something we can have a look at. But as I said, the relationship operates at many different levels and look, I think there are many different forms of communication that will no doubt be pursued. And I think if you look at the relationship over the long term, it’s had its ups and downs in the past and it’s had some difficult periods, and it’s had some periods of great positivity we’ll just have to work away at this and, in the meantime, we’ll continue to back our farmers, who’ve borne the brunt of this, who are the most productive and subsidy free in the world. And obviously, we don’t accept they’re being subsidised. We don’t see, for example, a linkage between Murray Darling water efficiency programs and growing barley in Western Australia and I don’t think any Australians would. So we’re going to keep making the case. We say that the decisions are incorrect in fact and in law, and we’ll keep pressing those issues and putting our point of view, both through our bilateral relationships and also if we have to, we’ve also got the international trade referee and we may have to go there.
Stefanovic: Okay, we had the wine industry on our show a short time ago actually, confirming too it’s facing no threats or sanctions at the moment so that’s one industry we don’t have to worry about.
Stefanovic: Andrew Gee, appreciate your time this morning, thanks so much for having us.
Gee: Thanks for having me on the show, great to be here.