01 December 2020

Australia's relationship with China is complex, but in one sense it got simple yesterday when a Chinese government official posted an abhorrent, violent and concocted image of an Australian solider holding a knife to an Afghan child's throat.

Australia's relationship with China is complex, but in one sense it got simple yesterday when a Chinese government official posted an abhorrent, violent and concocted image of an Australian solider holding a knife to an Afghan child's throat.
This was shameful and the Chinese Government should act quickly to condemn this act.
Despite this sorry affair, international trade between our nations must and will continue. Thousands of Australian jobs and businesses depend on it.
As has been widely reported, Australian wine exports to China were hit with debilitating tariffs over the weekend. At the same time, more than 80 ships carrying $1.1 billion of Australian coal were stranded off the coast of China. And tonnes of Australian live lobsters have died at Chinese airports in recent weeks.
Since May, China has also targeted our barley, red meat, cotton, sugar, copper and timber industries, as Beijing makes clear its displeasure with some of our diplomatic actions. The list of Australian export businesses unable to get their products into China seems to grow by the week.
Other exporters - including WA's stellar iron ore industry - are left to wonder if they're next.
In the decades-long rich history of Australia-China economic relations, this is a clear low point and an unprecedented crisis.
Over the past few weeks, I've spoken to scores of Australian exporters who are deeply concerned that the Morrison Government has no plan to help them. They are appealing to the Government for leadership; some of them feel abandoned.
If there is a strategy, it hasn't been made public. Instead, the Prime Minister and his senior ministers appear to have been frozen with inaction for months.
I am often asked: what would Labor do differently? My immediate response is to say that Labor is in Opposition and it is therefore up to the Government to draw on its diplomatic resources to fix this situation.
But I do have some ideas that could help.
Firstly, I reiterate that Labor understands the relationship with China is increasingly complex and that it must always be managed in the national interest.
While the wealth generated by exports is hugely important, national security and sovereignty are paramount.
It has been clear for some years that we might well face a situation such as this, but the Government nonetheless found itself backed into a corner under pressure to choose between these two interests.
The Government should have been making it clear for months that Australia seeks a positive economic relationship with China, and trade is mutually beneficial for the Australian and Chinese people.
The Prime Minister has tried making some more diplomatic comments in recent days, but he hasn't followed through with a plan to help exporters navigate this crisis.
Secondly, the Government must immediately appoint a dedicated minister for trade to work on resolving this crisis.
In July, Mathias Cormann announced his intended retirement. The Prime Minister has known for nearly six months that a Cabinet reshuffle was required.
In October, the Government effectively downgraded the trade portfolio by making Senator Simon Birmingham the finance minister as well as Government leader in the Senate, in addition to his portfolios of trade, tourism and investment.
We are told the Prime Minister will appoint a new trade minister at some point, but months have gone by and Australian exporters are none the wiser.
There couldn't be a worse time for this important portfolio to be in limbo.
Thirdly, the Government should draw on the expertise of Australian businesses that actually do business with China and enjoy long-term trade links with China. With the PM and his ministers unable to even speak to anyone in Beijing, these companies are the ballast in the relationship.
Business leaders have a legitimate place in this important national discussion.
Yet those who do speak up about the need for strong relations with China often have their motives questioned, labelled as "China sympathisers" or somehow disloyal to Australia.
Fourthly, this is why the Prime Minister must step up and lead the national discussion about China.
Mr Morrison has never admonished the regular inflammatory and xenophobic comments on China by some of his own MPs. Liberal Senator Eric Abetz recently had the gall to question the loyalty of Chinese-Australians, while backbencher George Christensen has called for a boycott of Chinese products this Christmas. China, of course, takes note of these comments. This only serves to make a bad situation even worse.
Finally, the Government must develop a clear strategy to genuinely diversify our export markets.
Our exporters need a Government that does more than simply point to free trade agreements and hope that this leads to an increase in trade.
True diversification takes years and it needs real commitment. But this Government has failed to do the hard work to open up new markets. The most glaring example is their decision to implement just one of the 20 priority recommendations contained in a 500-page report released in 2018 that contained a blueprint for closer economic engagement with India. As that report has gathered dust, India's share of Australian merchandise exports has fallen by more than 30 per cent.
This Government seems to believe that it's the responsibility of Australian companies to open up new markets. But it is evident from our history - including from the actions of both Liberal and Labor governments - that little will happen unless the Commonwealth takes the lead.
The Government should accept some responsibility for the poor state of the Australia-China relationship.
As should the Chinese authorities, particularly after the shocking fake imagery circulated this week.
But very importantly - and for the sake of Australian jobs and export income - the Australian Government must act in the national interest and devise an urgent strategy to get us out of this mess.