• Transcript, E&OE
Topics: trade deals; investigation into Angus Taylor.
27 November 2019

Ross Greenwood: Well, I tell you there’s big things happening for Australia – more trade deals coming through. In this case, we’ve been telling you for a while that there have been more trade deals in the offing. The big ones that are to come are India – although there have been issues there in the past; the UK – well that could very much depend on what happens with Brexit; then Europe as well – same sort of story there. But today, Australia has come out and effectively said trade deals passing through the Senate will mean that Indonesia, Hong Kong and Peru will have trade deals with.

Let’s bring in here our Minister for Trade Tourism and Investment, Simon Birmingham, who’s on the line right now. Simon, many thanks for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Ross. Great to be with you.

Ross Greenwood: Alright. So these deals clearly are on the back of a massive trade deal, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, that’s been announced just recently, which is one of the biggest trade deals of the world. And also the key in this arrangement is with Indonesia. The fact that Indonesia comes into the fold is very important because it’s such a large population sitting right on their doorstep, isn’t it?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely, Ross. Look, the Indonesia agreement is strategically so important for Australia. It is such a major partner for us as a nation. It’s a large population, a rapidly growing middle class with good rates of economic growth and so, enormous potential there for Australian exporters. For your listeners who sometimes think: well, what’s in it for Australia? What’s going on with these trade deals? What this means is around 500,000 tonnes of extra Australian wheat that will be able to go into Indonesia without facing any tariffs or taxes additionally on it. Similar types of big volumes in terms of meat gains, horticultural gains, dairy sector, having all of their tariffs eliminated, as well as in manufacturing areas such as steel products and so on as well. So, this is really about making sure that our farmers, our businesses, are able to sell more goods more easily, more competitively into what is going to be an increasingly important economy right on our doorstep.

Ross Greenwood: Yeah. And the truth is when the population starts to improve in terms of its wealth and demand for goods and services starts to improve, our 14th largest trading partner, right on our doorstep with such a large population, is strategic. Just one thing I don’t quite understand though. I know that Indonesia was also part of that Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership just signed only a month or so ago. 15 countries in there. So, where is the free trade agreement that’s been signed? How does that work alongside the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with those 15 nations?

Simon Birmingham: Well, our free trade agreement with Indonesia is ahead of that regional partnership. So, it is an agreement between Australia and Indonesia. We’ve now put the enabling legislation for that through the Australian Parliament and that will come into force sometime early next year. The regional partnership with 15 or 16 nations happening – that’s got a little way to go. We hope to see the final bits of negotiations ticked off on that over the next few weeks, have that signed around the middle of next year, but then that will still take a little while before, I would expect that, to come into force.

Ross Greenwood: Would that then supersede this free trade agreement that has been pushed through the Senate today as it were?

Simon Birmingham: They don’t supersede it. They will operate alongside one another. And essentially, what will happen is that businesses will be able to access the most favourable terms under whichever agreements they choose to do so.

Ross Greenwood: Okay. So then we go to Hong Kong. Explain to me why it is that Hong Kong has its own separate free trade agreement when we already have one with China?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Hong Kong is part of China but this is very much part of the so-called one country, two systems approach that China takes. So, Hong Kong has its own court systems and structures that have continued to an extent so, pay in part of China again. It’s maintained its own separate legal identities and systems to a degree.

Ross Greenwood: Okay. So then the other one I want to talk about is India. Now, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, I’ve mentioned a few times, India did not go into that agreement. It was supposed to. It was expected to. It pulled out and decided it would hold off until next year. What are the chances that you can get a free trade agreement before India might decide to go into some of those broader multilateral trade agreements that we have?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ll pursue all means that we can with India. We haven’t given up on India’s participation in the regional partnership just yet. As I said before, there’s a little bit of negotiating rooms still to go with India with the RCEP Agreement and there’ll be some time for us to try to convince India to still be a part of that. And the door remains wide open to India joining in that space. But if they don’t, we had already commissioned their Government a comprehensive economic strategy in our approach to India. We’ll double down on pursuing that. That’ll be a focus at the Prime Minister’s visit, Scott Morrison’s visit to India, in January next year, which he’s undertaking at the invitation of Prime Minister Modi of India. I think that’s a really encouraging sign that India wants to deepen its ties with Australia and we just have to get on and find the right mechanism and the right pathway for us to do that.

Ross Greenwood: Before I let you go, Simon, just one last thing. I do note that the Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called the New South Wales Police Commissioner Mick Fuller in regards to the investigation into Energy Minister Angus Taylor. I noticed also that Malcolm Turnbull, our former prime minister, says that’s a call that he would not have made. Is the Prime Minister erred, in your opinion, in calling the New South Wales Police Commissioner over an investigation into one of your Cabinet colleagues?

Simon Birmingham: No, he hasn’t and it’s important that people understand what happened yesterday. It was at the very start of Question Time. A new story ran saying that there was this investigation happening into Angus Taylor. The Prime Minister was asked in Question Time about it and whether he would stand in the Minister’s side. The Prime Minister quite rightly said in Question Time: well, I’m going to find out what this is about before I make any decisions. So we came out of Question Time, he rang the New South Wales Police Commissioner. They had an entirely appropriate conversation, as the New South Wales Police Commissioner himself has advised today, just where the Prime Minister found out on what basis the police were undertaking this investigation. Apparently, the basis is only because they’re responding to a letter from the Federal Labor Party making allegations. There’s nothing else in terms of what has prompted the police to do that. And they’re being thorough and diligent in the fact that they’ve got this letter so they figured they’d better investigate it [indistinct].

Ross Greenwood: Okay. Yeah, I get it. But is it a good look for the Prime Minister to be calling a police commissioner, a state police commissioner? Is that a good look, do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I’d rather that the Labor Party wasn’t wasting everybody’s time with these sorts of allegations and therefore, the Police Commissioner’s time and the Prime Minister’s time wouldn’t be being distracted at all. But, in the end, the PM had to satisfy himself in terms of adherence to the ministerial code of conduct that a decision had to be made as to whether Angus needed to stand aside as minister or not. And the best way for the Prime Minister to satisfy himself was to go direct to the source, and the only thing that happened there was that the PM asked the Police Commissioner to explain what was actually happening. The Commissioner, as I understand it, gave the PM that explanation, and from there, the PM made his decision. The New South Wales Police will get on. They’ll conclude their investigation. And probably, what we may well find is that the same thing occurs as with every other time the Labor Party pulls this stunt, and that is that it amounts to zero.

Ross Greenwood: Simon Birmingham, our Trade Minister, appreciate your time in the program this evening.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Ross.