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‘It is passing strange to me’: Howard tells entrepreneurs it would be odd to phase out coal

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Former prime minister John Howard said he considered it “strange” that any Australians should suggest phasing out the nation's coal industry while addressing a conference of Chinese and Australian entrepreneurs.

Mr Howard told the Sino-Australasian Entrepreneurs Summit that the rise of China had been “good for the Chinese people and good for the world” and that the economies of the two nations were complementary.

"For heaven’s sake [coal] is one of our great assets", former prime minister John Howard said.Credit:Jessica Hromas

“There is no doubt that the resource trade between Australia and China is and will continue for many decades into the future to be enduringly important to the economic links between our two countries,” he told the audience at the Australian Stock Exchange in Sydney.

“It is passing strange to me that some Australians talk about phasing out coal. For heaven’s sake it is one of our great assets … [iron ore and coal] exports form the bedrock of our trading relationship with China.”

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Mr Howard said that despite the great benefits of the deepening relationship it was important to recognise that Australia and China had fundamentally different political systems.

“We are different culturally. That is not automatically of itself a barrier to friendship and co-operation," he said. “We do have fundamentally different political systems and it does not profit the relationship to pretend that [the differences] don’t exist. Australia is a thriving liberal democracy … and we are not going to change that system. Equally it has to be said that China is an authoritarian, one-party, Communist state. There is no reason for us to pretend otherwise.

“I think it is important that these things be understood … There will be tensions. Those tensions are not insoluble, those tensions can be managed. They can best be managed by both China and Australia focussing on the things that we have in common.”

Before addressing the event, Mr Howard told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that he did not believe critical comments about China made by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton would hamper the relationship between the two nations. Last month, Mr Dutton asserted that China was responsible for cyber attacks against Australia as well as intellectual property theft and efforts to muzzle free speech.

“We should not be pessimistic about the relationship but we should also understand that there are differences in our political systems, [so] there are going to be difficulties and disputes, but we must learn to manage those things in a sensible pragmatic way," Mr Howard said.

Also addressing the conference was former trade minister Andrew Robb, who helped negotiate the China-Australia free trade agreement. He declined to comment on Mr Dutton’s assertions, but during his speech said he was optimistic about the relationship. He said good trade relationships were “the forerunner” of good general relationships between nations.

Chinese Charge D’affaires to Australia Wang Xining told the Herald and The Age that Mr Dutton’s assertions were a result of a misunderstanding by the Australian media. He said China did not use undue influence in Australia or on its university campuses, though it supports the right of Chinese students to peacefully make their views clear.

During his speech Mr Wang made a thinly veiled swipe at the United States, saying that China opposed “the revival unilateralism and trade protectionism" as well as the "undermining international rules and instigating anti-globalisation by a certain country for selfish motives”. He said this behaviour was a cause of global instability.

“Exceptionalism is anachronistic. It will hurt everyone, including those who adopt it.”

Nick O'Malley is a senior writer and a former US correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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