Topics: Regional Comprehensive Partnership; China; Drought; Hong Kong.

Transcript, E&OE

Press Conference, The Sukhothai, Bangkok

3 November 2019

Simon Birmingham: Thanks very much for coming along, and welcome to Bangkok. I’ve been here for a couple of days and in that time have had bilateral engagements and discussions with my counterpart from Indonesia confirming our mutual commitment to see the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement come into force. The agreement between Indonesia and Australia is central to our trade and economic strategy, and it is progressing through the Australian Parliament and we look forward to it progressing through Indonesia’s system in a similar timeframe, and so that the benefits of that agreement can be delivered and realised. And as the new Indonesian minister, he has given a strong commitment to the agreement and to our mutual partnership in seeing its benefits maximized in the years to come.

I’ve equally had discussions with counterparts from a range of other nations, including Singapore, India, Japan; as well as in the margins of our discussions with those from Vietnam, China and a number of other nations. Also, have launched together we our ASEAN partners a pipeline in relation to infrastructure projects of merit in the ASEAN region; infrastructure projects worthy of funding that have been independently assessed by the World Bank. This is an example of how we work together with ASEAN in providing leadership, identifying infrastructure projects of merit to the region, and ensuring that they are assessed to be of the type of standard and suitability that we would expect any projects to be if they are to be supported and funded, particularly by the private sector.

Of course, central to our discussions here are the discussions around the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. And ultimately, I am here, as the Prime Minister will be tonight, to talk about jobs. Exports equals jobs; jobs are derived from exports and business growth in Australia. Trade agreements that we’ve negotiated as a Government are about delivering jobs. Jobs because we have more exports and record exports, business growth, and therefore that’s delivered by these types of trade agreements. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement is of a scale that is unparalleled in terms of trade agreements that have sought to be negotiated across the world. It comprises 16 countries, half the world’s population nearly, and around a third of global GDP. And that means that it’s a difficult agreement to negotiate. The degree of difficulty is commensurate with the scale of this agreement. But we’ve been in this place before in terms of having difficult agreements that are hard to negotiate.

It is true that under the Trans-Pacific Partnership we faced moments where we thought it might never get done, but we persevered. Australia showed leadership in working with other partners like Japan. And we’re committed through the RCEP process to similarly try to realise those benefits by showing that leadership. Leaders will obviously receive an update in terms of negotiations when they meet tomorrow. And I hope and trust that we will see a pathway forward for the signing of that agreement next year, as has long been anticipating. That’s certainly the goal that Australia is working towards, and we’re working towards that goal because it’s about getting trade agreements that mean more export opportunities for Australia and more jobs for Australians. That’s the ultimate what all of this is about.

Journalist: Mr Birmingham, will we see from the leaders tomorrow, like a timeline, do you think, for completing it? Your Philippino counterpart has mentioned here today that February is the next likely date [indistinct]. Will the leaders be that specific, do you think, tomorrow night?

Simon Birmingham: Well that will be a matter for leaders to determine, in a sense. They’re going to get a report from trade ministers about where we’re at in terms of negotiations; the incredible progress that has been made in the last 12 months in terms of concluding text and progressing negotiations between the 16 different partners. But, there is still some heavy lifting that will be required to secure final agreement, final signature, if it’s to be all 16 nations. And ultimately, leaders will determine the timeline for that. I am hopeful that we can stick to the timeline that was envisaged last year, which would see the agreement scrubbed and signed and ready for entering into force at some point next year.

Journalist: How would you characterise some of the holdouts, I guess, or some of the outstanding issues with us? What are they- what do they do?

Simon Birmingham: Well, trade agreements are always challenging in terms of the different interests of different parties. And Australia goes into this trying to achieve the most ambitious agreement possible, but realistic, that we have across the 16 countries huge developmental differences, huge population differences, huge differences in the systems of government and cultures of those countries. And so, that means that bridging those divides is, as I say, probably the biggest challenge that’s ever been faced in terms of a trade agreement being signed and sealed around the world.

Now, the nature of the outstanding issues; there are still for some parties, significant negotiations in terms of their own market access exchanges — how much they are willing to lower tariffs, open up quotas between one another. And now, Australia has progressed to a very good position with nearly all of the negotiating parties there. And I’m confident that we could get to a point of settlement ourselves, but it’s got to be a point of settlement across each of the different 16 parties. And there are challenges that remain between some of them.

Journalist: The Prime Minister will meet with the Chinese Premier later today. You’re about to head to Shanghai. Where is the relationship at, given we heard the strong criticism from Beijing just earlier this week in response to Marise Payne’s comments?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’m going to head to Shanghai to attend the China International Import Expo and other events that China are hosting while I’m there. And what we’re seeing at that expo is huge participation by Australian businesses who continue to have very positive relations in their business-to-business contact with the Chinese economy and market. And that is the demonstration that, despite the negative headlines we see sometimes, Australian business, Chinese business, Australian people, Chinese people continue to get on with growing so many aspects of the relationship, particularly growing the trade opportunities that exist between our two nations. And my focus will be on doing that.

Should the Prime Minister and Premier Li be meeting; I am confident that they will cover the range of issues in the relationship, as you would expect in those sorts of frank dialogue that we have when two leaders sit together in a respectful way.

Journalist: So as you can see, there are still — the economic relationship aside — there are still tensions on those other issues.

Simon Birmingham: I think we have to always keep a sense of understanding, a sense of perspective in relation to issues that exist between Australia and China, or indeed many other nations. You know, in terms of human rights matters, Australia and China have had a very long-standing dialogue in relation to human rights matters. The fact that there are points of concern is not something new. It’s something that has existed for many, many years. And Australia simply stands by our values, principles and the approach we take. But we equally seek to cement the most positive relationship we can with China and to continue to advance, not just our trade, but ultimately China’s development and the opportunities for Chinese people to be able to see further growth of jobs in their economy; further growth in their lifestyle and opportunities, because it is one of the great economic miracles of our time — the growth that we’ve seen to date. We want to see that continue and continue to be a partner in supporting that.

Journalist: Minister, if the Government is trying to prevent [indistinct] boycott in certain companies, isn’t that altering the freedom of expression?

Simon Birmingham: Look, extreme activists should not be able to disrupt the freedom of other Australians to undertake their businesses and their lives. It’s about ensuring the mutual respect for one another in terms of the views of Australians. Now of course, people can choose to shop where they want; invest where they want. They are the rights that everybody has as Australians, and they are fundamental freedoms. However, ultimately, those who seek to run their own business, go about their daily lives, ought not be unnecessarily disrupted by others. We’ve taken action in relation to protecting Australian farmers from extreme activists who seek to disrupt the operation of their farms. And if there are other matters that need considering, well of course, we’ll take that in the same cautious and careful manner.

Journalist: Bob Katter and Pauline Hanson are joining forces for a drought tour. Now, these are two very outspoken politicians. What do you make of this political match up?

Simon Birmingham: Well look, you know, better late than never. The Prime Minister has been undertaking multiple drought tours ever since he became Prime Minister. And we welcome anybody who shows an interest in support for drought affected communities. Our Government has been working on this from the first day, essentially, that Scott Morrison became Prime Minister. And frankly, prior to that. And we’ve invested some $7 billion in a range of measures to support farming families, to support drought affected communities, and to build resilience for the long term.

Journalist: We’ve seen protests flare up in Hong Kong overnight. What would be your message to Hong Kong, and China as well, in regards to that?

Simon Birmingham: Our message remains consistent, which is that we urge the peaceful resolution of the matters that are causing and underpinning tensions in Hong Kong. We stand by the right of the people to peacefully protest, to peacefully express their opinions, whether it’s in Australia or in other parts of the world. But importantly, we also urge that those peaceful protests be respected and that resolution come from effective dialogue between the concerning parties.