Interview on 2GB with Chris Kenny
Topics: Australia-EU Free Trade Agreement; Brexit
Chris Kenny: Now while his home city of Adelaide suffers under record heat today, it’s been an absolute scorcher in Adelaide, its hottest ever day recorded as we mentioned earlier, the South Australian Senator Simon Birmingham being the Trade Minister is in the Swiss Alps, he’s in Davos. He tells me it’s about 70 degrees cooler there as he attends the Davos World Economic Forum and pursues Australia’s trade agenda in this difficult time with Brexit and the looming trade war- or the trade war that’s really in its early stages between the US and China. He joins me on the line now. Thanks for joining us Senator.
Simon Birmingham: G’day Chris, great to be with you.
Chris Kenny: I bet it is, a lot cooler there than it is in Adelaide today.
Simon Birmingham: Mate, I spoke to my kids a little while ago, they were getting out of the swimming pool in a 45, 46 degree day and here I am in minus 13.
Chris Kenny: Alright. Well of course, one of the many issues keeping people at Davos guessing and worried is Brexit. It’s a hell of a shambles, no one really knows what’s going to happen. But in the meantime of course, we – that is Australia, through you, are trying to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU and there’s been reporting about how difficult that is recently. It was always going to be difficult negotiating with the EU, but they don’t like our producers using terms like prosecco or parmesan or feta. Have we sorted out those sort of, those domestic gripes yet?
Simon Birmingham: We haven’t Chris and there’ll be quite some way to go on those in terms of what the final agreement will or won’t be, if we can get to one. First and foremost we want to make sure that Australian farmers and Australian exporters generally, if there’s be a trade deal with the EU, get the best possible deal – the elimination of unfair tariffs, the abolition of unfair quotas. We’re out to make sure that our farmers and exporters get a good deal. We currently send around $30 billion worth of exports to the EU, but there’s huge scope to grow that if we can get some of those trade barriers out of the way first.
Chris Kenny: Of course you’re hoping that if Brexit goes ahead, if there is no customs union with Britain and the EU, that you’ll be able to negotiate a free trade deal with the UK and I suppose you’d be expecting to negotiate that one more quickly and with fewer carve outs?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I hope we can do a quick deal with the UK, again, the same standards apply and there are UK concerns with some of their farming groups. But we think that with the common language, political legal systems, the very close shared history, if the UK does leave the EU and the common market there, then we should be able to get on quickly with a deal with the UK. There’s certainly that enthusiasm and commitment on their side of equation as well, but great uncertainty surrounds Brexit. So as well as negotiating for the long term there with getting a free trade agreement with the UK, we’ve also been doing all we can to protect the $13 billion worth of exports Australia makes directly into the UK by signing new agreements around recognition of wine making technologies, around mutual recognition of testing and inspection standards for other exported goods. All of that is really just replicating the types of access agreements we currently have with the EU, replicating them with the UK so that we can be absolutely confident that if Brexit happens abruptly on 29 March, know that Australian exporters are as protected as they possibly can be.
Chris Kenny: How about Brexit? I mean we know it’s frustrating for the Poms, for UK voters who voted for Brexit and their political leaders won’t deliver it. It must be enormously frustrating for other European leaders, they can’t see what’s going on. But what about for Australia as well, and you just looking on at this where a government just can’t seem to bring itself to implement the will of the people?
Simon Birmingham: Oh look, it is a very frustrating circumstance for everybody and from Australia’s perspective it’s the uncertainty that is most frustrating. In the end we have not just those who export directly to the UK, but of course for many Australian businesses they use the UK as a hub for exporting goods and services right across Europe. And if Brexit happens in an unmanaged quick way then there are risks to the way in which some of those businesses will be able to carry on now. We’ve done, as I’ve said before, our best to insulate business as best we possibly can from all the potential uncertainty, but there’s a lot on the line, a lot at stake and a whole lot of uncertainty attached to it. Our main call is for the uncertainty to be bought to an end, so that everybody knows precisely what it is they’re planning for and working toward.
Chris Kenny: What do you think about the democratic principles at stake here though? I noticed from Davos, where you’re there for the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting there, I often see it as the world’s political and media elite or political and business elite heading up there to a very rarefied atmosphere and peering down the mountains at the voters and mainstream on the lowlands. And certainly Tony Blair, the former UK Labour prime minister added to that sense over the last couple of days when he gave an interview from Davos, and said he was pushing for a second referendum. He says it time to put this back to the people, he says we’re going back to the people; we’re not asking anyone else, we’re asking them. We’ve had 30 months of negotiation, there’s a much clearer knowledge now of what Brexit really means, there’s a much greater understanding of all the issues around it. And I think it’s not unreasonable in these circumstances to ask people whether they want to think again. Isn’t that just the political elites saying that the voters need to keep voting until they produce the answer that the elites want?
Simon Birmingham: Well look, it is- it’s the UK’s business what they chose to do, but certainly, as I’ve said before, our concern is uncertainty. Another referendum would clearly prolong and extend that uncertainty and Theresa May has been very clear in her language that of course, there would be a real question as to what it is you would really ask the people to vote on – we’re you going to ask them to vote on her deal or a no deal Brexit or the various scenarios that are there. And that in the event of them pursuing another referendum, it would be hard to even agree on the question, let alone the answer I think is to paraphrase Theresa May. But it is- it’s their business, I’ve certainly come to Davos with the firm views in my pocket of Australian farmers, Australian businesses and that’s what I’m here to advocate for, whether it’s meeting with the UK Trade Secretary, with the EU Trade Commissioner or any of the other trade ministers or political leaders from around the world who we have to negotiate with. It’s about making sure you stay in touch with them and that we stay in touch with the concerns of our constituency and bring that here first and foremost, and not use it just as a place to opine on principle.
Chris Kenny: Thanks for joining us Simon and safe travels home.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much Chris. Cheers mate.
Chris Kenny: Simon Birmingham there, Senator for South Australia and our Trade Minister on the line there from Davos in Switzerland.