Interview with Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Prime Minister Albanese visit to China, Australia-China relations, Daylesford pub car crash.

Lisa Millar: Well, let's get more on that trip now with the Assistant Foreign Affairs Minister, Tim Watts, who joins me in the studio. Good morning to you.

Lots of lovely words exchanged, as you would expect on a trip like this. But what is the sign of success? When do we say, “Okay, it was worth it”?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, dialogue is the sign of success, Lisa. I mean, before we were elected, we said that we would stabilise a relationship with China without compromising in national interest, and that's exactly what we've done. And our calm and consistent approach is providing dividends to the Australian people. Dialogue is what lets us find those areas for cooperation, and also gives us that channel to raise concerns.

So, the dialogue we've had today is what has helped us to reduce that $20 billion of trade impediments, those duties imposed by China on Australian trade goods. We know that one in three Australian trade dollars goes to China, and we know that one in four Australian jobs relies on trade. So, this dialogue delivers for the Australian people; delivers jobs, delivers economic growth.

Lisa Millar: Do you think that we'll see more movement on some of those restrictions being lifted very soon?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, we continue to push for those remaining areas of blockage. When we came into government, there was $20 billion of Australian goods that were subject to those blockages in China. That's now down to around 1 billion. We've seen great progress on wine recently. The agreement to review – the expedited review of duties in China on Australian wine, that's about a billion dollar export industry for Australia. So, that really matters. This is something that's delivering for the Australian people.

Lisa Millar: Yeah. It's still – it's a juggle, though, isn't it? And you had the word “trust” being used a lot by Joe Biden, offering warnings or cautiousness towards Anthony Albanese. And you're trying to find this balance, the Australian government, between the strategic allies like the US and our own national interests, as you put it. It's not all roses there.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: No, I mean – and that's why we use the word “stabilise” the relationship, not “reset”, not “normalise”. We appreciate we can't go back to the days of 2016 when our security and our economic interests were completely separate. We understand that in the new world we live in, those issues are entangled. So, that makes a relationship with China important, but also complex.

Lisa Millar: Well, Australia – China wants to be part of this regional free trade pact, the CTTTP - everyone jumbles over the CPTPP.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: That's the one.

Lisa Millar: We'll just call it the regional free trade pact. Australia isn't going to allow that, is it? I mean, Japan wouldn't allow it. So, China's still wanting more.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, there are a number of countries wanting to join the CPTPP, and Australia's had a clear and consistent approach to all parties wanting to accede to the CPTPP. And that's that we want to see countries able to demonstrate their ability to comply, to adhere to the very high standards and rules in that treaty agreement. And we also want to see a track record of compliance with trade commitments entered into by countries going into that. But as you say, a session is by consensus. All of the countries would have to agree.

Lisa Millar: And how much does human rights weigh into that as well? Because Australia has still not had any assurances that Yang Hengjun will be released. He's not well, the pressure has been on the Chinese to let him go.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yeah, well, we've said that we'll cooperate with China where we can and we'll disagree where we must, and there are significant areas of disagreement between Australia and China. We have different systems, different values, different outlooks. One of those differences is on human rights.

We've continued to consistently raise issues like Hong Kong, like Xinjiang, like Tibet, but also these consular issues you raise. We share the concerns of Dr Yang's family and friends about his deteriorating health situation. And we've consistently advocated – we've raised at every opportunity – Dr Yang's case with China, asking for the basic standards of procedural fairness, the basic standards of justice, but also that he's provided the health care that he desperately needs.

Lisa Millar: Before you go, we've been covering this dreadful story in Daylesford. I understand that some of the families involved were in your electorate.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Yes. It's a devastating day for the Indian-Australian community in Melbourne's West. Two families, one from Point Cook, one from Tarneit, were tragically the five people that were killed in that accident. One of the great things about the Indian-Australian community is that they're joiners, they're doers, they're a big part of our community. Part of our community groups, part of our businesses, part of our cultural groups and part of our religious groups. And this is very much true for Pratibha, for Anvi and Jatin from Point Cook. And I know that the Indian-Australian community is really hurting at the moment. They're traumatised. So, I just want to give my thoughts to their friends and family at this really difficult time.

Lisa Millar: Tim, had you come across them personally? Did you know them?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, Pratibha was very well-known in the community. She was a candidate for Parliament, indeed. Also, very active in the Sikh community, active in relief efforts at time of needs, as the Sikh community so often is. I know Anvi was a enthusiastic Bollywood dancer. Everywhere you go in Melbourne's West at these community events, you get these gorgeous kids dancing. And just to think that that moment of family joy – something that so many Australians do, a trip with two families going to the countryside, ends in tragedy. At this time, where we're supposed to be celebrating and coming together, it's just unbearable. It's so heartbreaking.

Lisa Millar: Have you been able to speak to other members of the family or friends, or get a sense of what you're able to do for them or what they need at this point?

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: We're trying to engage at the moment, this is new information about who was killed in this tragic accident. But we're working with the community and it's going to be a long recovery period, I think, from this tragedy.

Lisa Millar: Tim Watts, thanks for coming in this morning.

Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you, Lisa.

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