Chinese ambassador’s threats a “wake up” call, says former APS chief

By on 13/05/2020 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Martin Parkinson points out that five Australian prime ministers have lost their jobs "due to the politics of climate change" over an 11-year period

Australia’s former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet secretary Martin Parkinson has backed calls for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. The retired civil service leader was highly critical of comments by the Chinese ambassador, who said that such an inquiry could lead Chinese nationals and businesses to boycott the country.

Chinese ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye claimed last month that the Australian government was “teaming up” with the US government to “launch a kind of political campaign against China”. He warned the Morrison government that pursuing an inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a fall in Chinese tourists visiting the country and in the sales of popular exports such as beef and wine.

It was revealed on Tuesday that China had suspended beef imports from four Australian producers.

Parkinson, who retired from his role as Australia’s most senior civil servant in August 2019, told ABC’s current affairs programme 7.30 last week that it is “absolutely right that we should have an inquiry into the lessons that we need to learn as nation states and as a global community so that we are better placed to deal with pandemics as they emerge in the future”.

Cheng’s threats, he said, should “come as a real wake-up call” to Australians. “He has now put front and centre before the Australian public the sorts of coercive behaviours that [the Chinese government is] prepared to use if countries don’t fall into line,” Parkinson said.

He added that China would “respond to its own self-interests so I think we shouldn’t be too spooked by what he said”, but said that Australia should listen to Cheng’s comments and “think carefully about how we would react as a country were such threats to turn into reality”.

While he backed the government’s calls for an inquiry, he questioned whether it had done enough to prepare for the statements it made pushing for an inquiry. “I can’t judge that,” he said. “I’m not aware of the extent to which we were trying to marshal support or the extent to which we were engaging with the other countries in the region.”  

In for a long, hard slog

Asked about Australia’s economy and the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis, Parkinson, a former Treasury secretary, told 7.30 that the country was in for a “long, hard slog”.

He said the government had “handled the crisis really well” and defended the scale of the fiscal stimulus, which stood at AUS$320bn (US$209bn) at the end of March. “The thing you have to remember when you are confronted with a recession and the sort of circumstances that we have here, is nobody has a crystal ball,” he said. “It is far, far better to err on the side of caution of what turns out to be excessive expenditure, than to err on the side of not providing enough stimulus.

“I actually don’t think at all that the government has erred in the sense of providing too much.”

Parkinson said that in addition to economic reform, Australia would need to “accelerate the digitisation of the economy, encourage greater innovation and agility in our firms and develop a really coherent and bipartisan strategy about our engagement with Asia”.

Global Government Forum published an interview with Parkinson late last year in which he said civil servants should build a meritocratic, risk-taking public service focused on meeting citizens’ needs.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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