Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia




Doorstop Interview – Auckland, NZ     
Topics: WTO reforms; Australia-New Zealand relationship; RCEP;



Journalist: As I said, I mean, the topics I wanted to canvass, we’re looking at the WTO and I’m conscious of your comments on this the other day after coming back from abroad again. And what do you think could be done to create momentum for reform?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, I think the crisis and threat to the dispute resolution function of WTO is now creating a momentum and a heightened awareness of the need for action. Australia and New Zealand have been working very closely together for at least the last year around WTO cooperation, together with a number of other nations through the Ottawa Agreement. We have taken that to the next level of discussions by engaging the ASEAN countries and they of course represent a very broad mix of countries in development status and give us an- not status but developmental standing. And they give us a powerful regional fora to be able to discuss how we can advance WTO reform. It’s not easy. We look very much to the completion of work in Geneva that is being led by New Zealand, Ambassador Walker, that hopefully can present a consensus or as near as consensus options as possible for us to work to advance what particular reform will be achievable. And there’s no doubt that and we have to show that through progress around the negotiating function of the WTO and ideally that means concluding fishery subsidies this year, and having made tangible progress in areas like e-commerce by the Ministerial Council Meeting next year. It also means though administrative reforms to speed up the timeliness and enhance the transparency of WTO.


Journalist:        I mean, do you have any sort of sense on what concrete initiatives might emerge that would gain support?


Simon Birmingham:     Well, in terms of the type of administrative reforms, I think there are simple things that indeed are currently mandated but not delivered effectively such as the timeliness of reports that can be done to restore confidence. There are trickier but important things such as the transparency of notifications of subsidies and ensuring that we or that countries can collectively have greater confidence in the way the system works. But all of those sit on the administrative function side. Then there really is the fact that the WTO’s got to demonstrate it can still negotiate outcomes on trade policy and commitments between nations and that’s where concluding fishery subsidies, making progress on e-commerce and ideally, from the perspective of countries like Australia and New Zealand, showing some willingness that next year’s Ministerial Council restart dialogue around agriculture would be crucial.


Journalist:        Do you think that willingness will come?


Simon Birmingham:     Look, I think it’s tough but we have to keep working to build the broadest possible base and consensus. And I think if there’s a silver lining out of the heightened tensions that exist around trade policy at present, it is that people are aware of the need for action, progress and reform. Whether they can unify around what that reform looks like will of course be the great test as to whether such tensions are eased or heightened.


Journalist:        Are you expecting- I mean, you talk about the ASEAN nations but there’s nations like Korea that are feeling the heat now out of Japan, and that particular, I guess, expansion of protectionist fights. How do you get them also to step up to the plate and raise their voices? Because I was surprised at how defeatist Korea seemed recently when I was there at a leadership level on trade.


Simon Birmingham:     Yeah. Their people focus particularly on the US China dispute, but there clearly are a number of flashpoints in systems around the world. The US, in a number of its engagements, the ongoing saga of Brexit and then other particular geopolitical tensions or trade tensions that will manifest themselves such as those between Japan and Korea. What we have to continue to do is remind people of the principles and benefits. The principles that rules-based trading structures ensure that smaller and mid-sized economies are able to fairly compete without having might is right outcomes imposed upon them, and the effectiveness being that we live in a region that is living proof. That opening up of markets and economies has delivered growth and transformation that hasn’t just kept developed economies like Australia’s and New Zealand’s strong, it has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in developing economies too.


Journalist:        So just looking at the impact of the US-China trade conflict and how that might now be starting to affect trade exports out of Australia, I mean, what have we seen there in terms of disruption to global supply chains? What are you having to grapple with now?


Simon Birmingham:     We all have to acknowledge the things you can control and the things you can’t control. And obviously, only the US and China can solve their dispute between themselves. However, we can do the best we can to insulate ourselves from that dispute. I think Australian business has done an incredible job of ensuring the strength of its relations right around our major trading partners, has enabled them to continue to grow our export volumes and value in the face of an environment where global trade value- volume growth has slipped notably. We also continue to look to seize new market access opportunities for Australian businesses to have access to – to make sure that- and whether it is through the RCEP negotiations and what can be achieved with India, and whether it is work with the EU, Pacific Alliance or elsewhere, we will continue to strike new ground, new market access opportunities, as well as then even in the closest of all relationships, such as the one that I’m here in New Zealand for, exploring what the next breakthroughs in cooperation can be. Whether the areas for mutual recognition, or business registration numbers, or approaches that can enable us to ensure that digital identification in the future is built on common platforms that can enhance further integration of our economies and lower cost, and enhance productivity for our businesses right.


Journalist:        With RCEP, I mean you touched on that before. But do you have a sense that it will get done this year? I mean I know China’s side has been making some talk, comments about it. I interviewed  [Indistinct] at the weekend from [indistinct], and he was saying that there was strong hope that deal was to do it this year.  Or is it just too hard?


Simon Birmingham:     Well the commitments made by ministers in Bangkok at the start of the week were very strong commitments to work through the next round of negotiators in Da Nang; seek to conclude market access exchanges, seek to deal with outstanding issues. And if those ambitions are followed through on, then we should be able to conclude negotiations by the end of this year. But there are challenges and there is still a way to go as is well known with one major player more than some others. And we need to see momentum there to truly realise the gains of RCEP,


Journalist:        I mean what do you see as those challenges? Which prime challenges?


Simon Birmingham:     Well the challenges really are about ensuring that RCEP is sufficiently ambitious in terms of the market access undertakings between all partners and that the terms and text of RCEP is sufficiently comprehensive, that it does provide for an opening in areas such as investment and formal modern practices in areas like e-commerce.


Journalist:        Future trade challenges. How do you see the landscape?


Simon Birmingham:     I think we live in incredibly competitive and challenging times. But I’m hopeful that what is in some ways interpreted as a rise or return to protectionism is less about a return to protectionism and more simply a manifestation of the power struggle that comes with changing regional power dynamics, and that we can work through those issues in a way that facilitates continued openness and growth.


Journalist:        Just on your bilateral discussions with David Harper, what did you canvass? I’m going to ask him this by the way as well.


Simon Birmingham:     Yeah, so we canvassed and the communique’s a pretty accurate reflection of that. And we canvassed things such as e-invoicing, procurement, sorry- payment targets, the areas for Maori-Indigenous cooperation and business enhancement, the digital identification practices and harmonisation as I mentioned before, and the pathway to providing mutual recognition practices around our business identifiers. So it’s a demonstration that even for the closest of relationships where there are no more tariff or quota barriers to discuss and there’s plenty of areas of mutual cooperation, there’s still a whole extra level of cooperation that can still be pursued.


Journalist:       Did you get on to the Pacific? I think he told me he was hoping to discuss the Pacific?


Simon Birmingham:     I think we talked briefly about areas for economic cooperation across the Pacific and how our shared work around infrastructure prioritisation in each of the countries could also reflect into those Pacific questions.