Transcript, E&OE

Topics: Trade agreement with the UK; domestic and international tourism sectors.
17 June 2020

Mark Levy: Now, I spoke at the start of the show about Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and his question as to why anyone would want to visit South Australia. South Australian Senator Andrew McLachlan, to whom I spoke to, had the perfect answer. He said: to escape you. Now, tourism has also been on the agenda in Canberra, with Federal Minister Simon Birmingham addressing the National Press Club. But Senator Birmingham is also the Federal Minister for Trade and Investment and he’s been talking about discussions which started today with the UK on a new free trade agreement. And I’m pleased to say Senator Birmingham is on the line right now. Minister, good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Mark. Great to be with you.

Mark Levy: Thank you so much. Let’s start with free trade and this proposed new deal with the UK. Negotiations, as I say, has started today, but what do we have in place at the moment in terms of a trade deal between the two countries?

Simon Birmingham: Well right now, the UK and Australia operate under essentially World Trade Organization terms, which are not really all that open because way back 48 years ago, when the UK moved into the European Economic Community, they basically adopted, at that stage, all of the different tariff regimes and so on of the EU, and when they finally sort of leave that under all their terms, the risk is that we then revert to other settings and that means that our farmers and our businesses face high tariffs, which are high taxes on their products going into the UK. And what we want to do is avoid that and get it back to a situation which we were way back pre those 1970s times, where we had much better trade access to the UK. We used to be- or the UK used to be our third largest trading market for our Australian goods. It’s now our 12th largest and our farmers took a real hit over that period of time and we want to win them back some access.

Mark Levy: I understand it’s worth about that $30 billion mark. How much more potential do you think there is with this free trade agreement between the UK and this country, Australia?

Simon Birmingham: There’s certainly hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars of potential upside for our farmers and businesses in exporting to the UK. Now, we’ll probably never go back to the same type of volume of goods going into the UK that we had in the 1970s because in the intervening 40 plus years, we have managed to successfully seized foothold in a range of other markets that have gotten much bigger across our Indo-Pacific region and we’ll continue to trade with those for a range of good and worthy reasons. But we want to give, as a government, our farmers and exporters the maximum number of choices. Our strategies to do that in growing the number of trade agreements Australia has has generated a circumstance where we’ve now had close to 30 consecutive months in a row of trade surpluses in Australia, exporting more than we import month after month as a nation, and so we want to make sure we keep giving those choices to farmers and businesses and the UK is a key part of that future strategy.

Mark Levy: So do you put a timeframe on it? Will it be done and locked in by Christmas?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I hope we can get there this year. In the end, we’re two countries that have common rule of law, common language, common values and both have a really positive attitude coming into these negotiations. So, I hope that it can be a record-breaking trade agreement in terms of the speed with which we conduct it.

Mark Levy: All right. Tourism’s obviously a portfolio of yours as well. We want to get people back holidaying and enjoying this beautiful country of ours. Although, given the carry on between Daniel Andrews and one of the senators down there in Canberra, Andrew McLaughlan, it seems that Mr Andrews doesn’t think people should visit South Australia.

Simon Birmingham: Look, I’d urge all the state premiers to realise that this whole country has done an incredible job in suppressing the spread of COVID-19. Back a few months ago, what we were talking about then was the threat and the risk that our health systems would be overwhelmed and we saw what happened with that consequence in Europe and the US, with mass graves and overflowing hospitals. We’ve- we have done an exceptional job here suppressing the spread. And even the new number of cases reported today, the vast majority of those in the state of Victoria are people who are in mandatory quarantine in hotels.

So I’d say to all the state premiers: let’s keep on the path of opening up. That includes opening up state borders because one in 13 Australian jobs is related to our tourism industry and we can’t give them any international visitors at present. That is too high risk. So we really do want to stimulate the domestic tourism market of getting Australians travelling across the country. And I want Australians to feel pride in our tourism product, to become better informed by it. And if you can afford to do so, the most patriotic thing you can do right now to support many small businesses across the length and breadth of this country is to book a holiday or take a short trip. You’ll be helping to save the jobs of a fellow Australian.

Mark Levy: Alright. One quick one, Minister. In relation to tourism, you mentioned international visitors. I think our biggest defence in this fight against COVID-19 is the fact that we are surrounded by water and the only way that it can get into the country is through international visitors and the like. When do you expect international visitors to be allowed back into Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Well, not until it’s safe to do so and not without the circumstances where we can safely manage each and every one as they come back. We’ve returned tens and tens of thousands of Australians over the recent months into the country safely and successfully processing them through mandatory quarantine steps. So it can be done if we look at, for example, international students or others, we may be able to handle them in the same sort of way as we have those returning Australians and do that safely. But we’re certainly not going to reopen the borders in any type of free flowing way, because you are dead right. Scott Morrison rejected the advice of the World Health Organization back in February, chose to close our borders off instead, and that was a key part of our success and will remain so until we can see a vaccine or other better management means for controlling this virus.

Mark Levy: Alright. It’s been a busy day for you, Minister. I appreciate you jumping on the line and having a chat.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Mark. My pleasure.

Mark Levy: Well done mate. Senator Simon Birmingham joining us from Canberra after addressing the National Press Club earlier today.