Topics: Brexit; Free Trade Agreements.

Transcript, E&OE

18 October 2019

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much for coming along today. Firstly, I note, there’s plenty of interest in developments between the UK and the EU overnight in relation to Brexit. How it is that the UK and the EU choose to resolve Brexit is firmly a matter for them. Whatever happens, Australia is extraordinarily well placed in terms of the work and the preparation we’ve done for any Brexit scenario and the work we’ve done to make sure that our farmers and businesses are in the best possible position to be able to do trade deals with the European Union and the United Kingdom into the future. The work we have done has made sure we already have underway live negotiations with the European Union. And that work is continuing at pace and we want to see that concluded if possible by the end of next year, subject to getting a good deal, a great deal, for Australian farmers and businesses.

With the UK, we have a Trade Working Group under way and we’ve made sure that we have discussed formally launching trade negotiations the moment that they are in a position to do so. It would appear that if the deal that has been struck between Prime Minister Johnson and the EU is actually brought into force and accepted by the UK Parliament, that we would have pretty much until the end of next year to be able to conclude negotiations on a deal with the UK and then to be able to legislate and seek to bring that into force, perhaps in tandem with the finalisation of those Brexit steps. But as I say, exactly what they do is a matter for them. We are ready, though, to move in the interests of Australian farmers and businesses as quickly as possible. And we do so because it’s about building on our success, our success we’ve had as a government in opening up trade opportunities across Japan, Korea, China, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and now I look forward next week to legislation I trust passing the House of Representatives for the Indonesia, Hong Kong and Peru trade agreements that are government has struck.

I welcome the fact the Labor Party is indicating they will support that legislation and I know they’re saying they want some issues addressed, and although I think most of those issues are unnecessary, we’ll work through them in a sensible way. We’ll come back to the Labor Party before the legislation goes to the parliament next week because we want to maintain quite genuinely bipartisanship in relation to trade deals. It is disappointing to see elements of the Trade Union Campaign continue to lie and scaremonger when it comes to these trade agreements. I see messages that they will lead to privatisation, that is just false, there are no requirements in these trade agreements that’s mean that governments have to privatise assets that’s just an outright falsehood. I see talk about the flood of foreign workers when in reality we’re talking about a very limited number of working holidaymakers, young people under the age of 30 who travel around the country, spend their money while they’re travelling, and indeed, that is very much the same as what happens when young Australians go overseas and travel as working holidaymakers, too.

So this agreement is a good deal, or these agreements are good deals for Australian farmers and businesses, and they’ll continue to deliver on what our trade agreements have delivered to date. That is more exports, jobs growth, businesses grow, more opportunities for Australians, and that’s what we’re determined to keep going into the future.

Question: Are you effectively dismissing concerns that local workers would be undercut by foreign labour under this agreement?

Simon Birmingham: Let’s be really clear about the employment outcomes of trade agreements. Trade agreements mean more jobs for Australians, more jobs into the future. The trade agreements that we’ve struck and the growth in export and trade activity in Australia over the last five years, is estimated to have created 240,000 extra Australian jobs. And I am 100 per cent confident that by exporting more to Indonesia, we will create even more Australian jobs in the future.

Question: Just given its proximity to Indonesia and how it’s a bit of a different market as well. How is this going to affect WA specifically?

Simon Birmingham: Western Australia is a standout beneficiary in terms of the Indonesia agreement. The grains industry of WA are some of the strongest advocates for the Indonesia deal because WA stands to be able to get its goods, its products, to the Indonesian market faster than any other part of Australia, aside from the Northern territory, due to their proximity. So what I see there is really great enthusiasm from West Australians, West Australian industry. They’re not the only beneficiaries by any means, but they’re certainly extraordinarily well-placed and very enthusiastic about getting this deal done. And I do welcome the advocacy that we have seen from the WA State Labor Treasurer around this trade agreement, and the WA Government has shown a degree of maturity in supporting that and being bipartisan in supporting the Liberal and National Parties is in realising our trade agenda.

Question: How big is this jobs growth going be? [Indistinct].

Simon Birmingham: Indonesia is forecast to become one of the biggest economies in the world. So access to such a huge economy is clearly going to fuel the opportunity for our exports to grow, not unlike the type of growth rates that we’ve seen of exports to China over recent years. Maybe not quite at the same level, noting the scale of Indonesia’s population and growth rate isn’t quite as fast as China’s was, but it is still very fast relative to many other markets around the world. We’re seeing 5 per cent growth in Indonesia, they’re striving for 7 per cent. The projections put them in the possibility of being one of those globally leading economies, and that means that you would hope from export growth that we could see thousands more jobs for Australians, just as we’ve seen 240,000 extra jobs in recent years.

Question: You actually raised an interesting point there with China. With this new trade agreement is that going to diversify the reliance of the market [indistinct]?

Simon Birmingham: It’s about providing more choice and opportunities for Australian businesses. So government in the end doesn’t determine who a business sells their good or service to, they do. But what we have done successfully and are continuing to do is crack open doors that have previously been slammed shut to Australian farmers and businesses and make it easier for them to walk through those doors and to be able to sell more goods, more services into those markets. And so a deal with Indonesia, just as a deal with the EU or UK means more choices for Australian farmers and businesses to be able to sell their goods into a more diverse range of markets.

Question: Do you see any merit in the negotiating conditions deployed by [indistinct] particularly around the [indistinct] with Indonesia [indistinct]… and for the connections around exploitation?

Simon Birmingham: We will certainly give proper, honest consideration to Labor’s request and respond thoughtfully. And where we can highlight often work that is already happening or give assurances that protections are there and will continue to be there in the future, we will do so. The issues around the bilateral investment treaty with Indonesia, Madeleine raised those with me a little while ago and they were repeated in the JSCOT report that was handed down the other week too so we’ve been looking at that and I trust we will be in a good position to give Labor clear answers early next week.

Question: And just on Brexit, how likely is it that some of our access to the EU and to the UK could be traded off as the EU and UK have their own negotiations?

Simon Birmingham: I’ve got a strobe light here. Sorry, how likely is it to-

Question: Yeah, how likely is it that our access to those markets could be traded off as they kind of work out their own positions?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I- we have currently very restrictive access into the 28 EU nations, including the UK. We face low quotas and high tariffs across a number of groups that are of interest to Australia, and so I can’t see any scenario where Australia — if we can manage to get deals struck with the EU and the UK — doesn’t improve the current position. Now, Brexit itself poses some difficulties in terms of the splitting of quotas as they currently sit across the 28 EU nations, but into 27 plus one, in that they have proposals for a technical issue, but proposals that would take the existing quotas for different goods and split them into two. That creates difficulties for Australian exporters because they then don’t have the flexibility of one larger quota; they’re dealing with two smaller quotas.

But our ambition out of both the EU negotiations and negotiations with the UK even when we get to them, is to make sure that we get better quota access for everybody and give our farmers and businesses more choice right across both markets.

Question: And obviously with the EU, naming of some products is a real sticking point. I know the wine industry here is really concerned about that. Is there any more movement that’s possible there?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve listed- we’ve published the EU’s request of around 400 terms. We chose not to publish wine terms, because we already have a longstanding wine agreement between Australia and the EU. The protected terms like champagne and Rhine riesling and port, and the Australian wine industry’s only gone from strength to strength since then, so. Elsewhere the 400-ish terms, some of them are food products, some of them are spirits names. We’re quite confident that we will be able to reach an agreement. We’ve made zero commitments to the EU in terms names that we will protect, and it’s about genuinely listening to our industry first and foremost, and then we’ll negotiate with the EU depending on the advice we’re getting from the Australian industry.

Question: And just finally, on FTAs and further ones that needed to kind of negotiated, farmers really want the Indian FDA up and running and they’re saying they’re not holding their breath. It’s going to be a very hard road. But what’s your message to them?

Simon Birmingham: I think not holding your breath is a wise approach. But negotiations as part of the 16 nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, which we are seeking to conclude in coming months, includes of course having India at the table. We really hope that we can conclude that 16 nation agreement. It will be symbolically important, bringing together close to half the world’s population, around a third of global GDP, but it also will give Australia if we can seal that deal our first ever trade exchange and agreement with India. And that will be a very significant step forward.

I don’t think people should overstate how far it may be able to reach, in that it is proven to be for a long period of time now, a challenge to be able to secure widespread trade access and agreements between India and other countries. But I am really pleased and grateful for further cooperation that the Indian minister and Indian authorities have showed they’re working with Australia. And I hope that we can manage to conclude our set and within that, some meaningful agreement in market access between Australia and India.

Thanks guys