Birmingham defends Austrade officials

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday January 18, 2021

Simon Birmingham

Former trade minister Simon Birmingham has voiced support for commonwealth diplomats following calls for Australia to look to other markets in light of China’s trade sanctions.

The fallout of Australia’s deteriorating relationship with China has included sanctions and tariffs against Australian exporters of barley, lobsters, beef, wine and more.

In an op-ed for The Australian on Monday, Australian Industry Group boss Innes Willox — who has in the past served as Australia’s consul-general in Los Angeles and as chief of staff to former foreign minister Alexander Downer — argued that Australian foreign policy-makers must “step up”.

“For too long our foreign policy has been too passive when it comes to supporting Australia’s commercial interests. There are countless examples of ambassadors and others declining to help our companies, large and small, to make connections or conclude deals that would drive growth and jobs for Australians,” he wrote.

“The impression has been that commercial diplomacy is seen as a grubby venture beneath some in our diplomatic corps — a little bit like getting their hands dirty.”

Read more: Opinion: Australia-China relations’ downward spiral can be reversed

Willox called for officials to explore other markets, including in ASEAN, India, the Middle East, Latin America, the Pacific, Britain, and Europe.

In response to the article, finance minister Birmingham — who was trade minister until October — defended the public servants who have been dealing with the impacts of China’s trade action.

“Our diplomatic network, our Austrade officials around the globe well and truly has rolled their sleeves up, as they always do in terms of helping to find alternate markets,” he told Radio National on Monday.

“If you take the barley market, for example, there have been significant new contracts secured in the Middle East, in parts of South East Asia, elsewhere. And so, this is an ongoing task for our officials working alongside industry to make sure that Australian goods — if they are no longer wanted or being taxed out of viability because of Chinese regulatory decisions — find new homes elsewhere around the world.

“And our networking team is doing that, and they’ll continue to work very closely with the industry groups to make sure that so far as possible, we help Aussie exporters to get their premium quality goods into markets as they’ve done so successfully for so many years.”

Read more: Opinion: Trade deal with China was always useless, despite what our leaders wish us to believe


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