Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment



Interview on ABC Radio Adelaide, Breakfast with Ali Clarke.      
Topics: Impact of US-China trade dispute; university job prospect regulation; union regulations; water inquiry




David Bevan: Let’s welcome our panellists. Liberal Senator from South Australia, Minister for Trade Simon Birmingham. Good morning to you.


Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Good to be with you.


David Bevan: Labor Senator from South Australia Penny Wong and Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister. Good morning to you.


Penny Wong: Morning, how are we?


David Bevan: Very well. Centre Alliance MP for Mayo Rebekha Sharkie. Good morning to you, Rebekha.


Rebekha Sharkie: Good morning. Good morning everyone.


Ali Clarke: Simon Birmingham, with regards to the trade wars that we’re seeing unfold between America and China. I was watching an economist on the telly last night and after watching his report, I was pretty much ready and buy canned goods and start building myself a bunker.


I mean is this going to get worse before it gets better?


Simon Birmingham: Well Ali, I’m an inherently optimistic first but, you know, these are troubled times. There’s no doubt about that in terms of the impact that different trade disputes are having. The rate of growth in global trade has slumped to levels not seen since the global financial crisis. Now, Australia has been riding through that pretty well. In fact, just yesterday we had new trade statistics out showing record levels of exports from Australia, record trade surpluses. So you know, we have been coming through this incredibly well thanks to the hard work of Australian business, the opportunities that trade deals we’ve struck over recent years have created and indeed, some good fortune in areas that can be quite volatile like commodity prices.


And so we have to just keep being determined to keep opening up new markets, to keep helping our exporters and of course, to keep trying to engage and urge the rest of the world, particularly those in the major disputes like the US and China, to maintain dialogue and hopefully resolve these issues because they are having a negative impact on global markets and economic growth.


David Bevan: Penny Wong, there’s not much Simon Birmingham can do about this, is there?


Penny Wong: Well I’ll make a couple of points first. First, you know, no one wins from a trade war and we know there are consequences and, you know, we have consistently raised these publicly. We want the trade conflict resolved and we want it resolved in a way where, you know, trading arrangements that Australia benefits from are preserved.


But I would take issue with one point Simon said, we aren’t facing this uncertainty from a position of strength. We’re facing this posit- this uncertainty globally in a much weaker economic position than we would want to be. We’ve got economic growth, the slowest it has been in the 10 years since the global financial crisis. In this time, we’ve slipped from one of the fastest growing developed economies to one of the slowest growing and Australians know their wages are stagnant. So not only do we have the consequences of a trade war, which on this we agree with the Government; no one wins from a trade war. But we are facing at a time where for home grown domestic reasons our economy is much weaker than we would want it to be.


David Bevan: And Simon Birmingham, if your party had spent less time ripping itself apart and perhaps addressing fundamental reforms such as energy, we would be in a much better position to deal with these things.


Simon Birmingham: Well David, I don’t accept Penny’s analysis. Australians know that our unemployment is at quite historically low levels. We’ve seen incredibly strong jobs growth …


Penny Wong: That’s the facts. You’d agree that economic growth is slower- the slowest it has been in 10 years since the GFC. That’s actually a fact. It’s not an opinion.


Simon Birmingham: And for Australians their employment outlook is incredibly strong. We’ve seen very significant growth in full time employment through our time in government. We have a budget position which is now coming back to surplus and that, of course, gives government greater capacity in terms of how we handle these things. It’s allowed us to provide for significant legislation of tax cuts and many Australians at present are receiving $1080 back in their tax returns which is extra impact into the economy.


So because of that budget management, because of that jobs growth, we’ve been able to provide that type of uplift that wouldn’t have been possible with the type of deficits that were run back when we inherited the government.


Ali Clarke: Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo, you’ve been listening to the two major parties back and forth here. Do you feel confident?


Rebekha Sharkie: Well I think it’s the uncertainty – that is leaving many of us alarmed. I mean we have an American President who is incredibly volatile, you know, he’s conducting so much of his public policy on Twitter and anyone who follows- who follows him on Twitter would naturally be deeply concerned. What I think’s particularly interesting though and I thought that America would’ve tempered much of the rhetoric, but I was talking to US policy expert last week in the Parliament from the United States Studies Centre and I mentioned how, you know, how the US farmers are feeling. And he said: look, they’re right behind Trump on this. And I think that that’s – that’s where the concern is because they- they’re the ones that are feeling the brunt of the US-China trade wars, I think more than anyone and yet they’re right behind the President and this is politically attractive in his country. And that’s where we’re caught in the crossfire and I think it’s – yeah, uncertain days.


David Bevan: Simon Birmingham coming back to you, an expert panel appointed by your Government has recommended tying university funding to graduate employment. Now you’re a formal federal education minister – now of the trade and tourism and infrastructure portfolios – but you know the sector well. Is this long overdue?


Simon Birmingham: Well David, I really look forward to seeing the details of this report and welcome its release. This is a process that indeed I ticked off when I was the education minister, where universities in the demand driven system had been able to enroll as many students as they want in whatever subject area they wanted or courses that they wanted and received guaranteed payments flowing through from that. And what I was picking up was increasing concern that in some areas enrolments were growing to a degree that wasn’t keeping in check with the employment opportunities for those graduates. It was a huge-


David Bevan: Well some of the universities were with very- and are, with very slick advertising, they’re seducing vulnerable students into courses that promise good jobs that few of them will get. Is any of that wrong?


Simon Birmingham: Well David, that was the concern that I was responding to. So what we started was a process to shift where future growth in funding universities would be linked to the performance of those universities. And this report is the next step in that which will say well, what are you going to asses?  How are you going to assess universities against their performance? And what we’re looking at here, as I understand it, the report recommends metrics around the employment outcomes for students, the success rate of students – as in whether they actually pass and complete the courses they’re doing – the experience and satisfaction of those students, as well as a range of equity factors around the participation of rural and regional students, low SES students, indigenous students, et cetera. So this is a very important step to- from next year start to drive universities to say, well you can still have the autonomy to make decisions about how many students you enrol and what courses and subjects they undertake. But it must absolutely be matched to the economic conditions that you’re working in, in terms of ensuring that those students have got the best possible prospects of getting a job at the end of it, not just being put through a course for the sake of it.


David Bevan: Penny Wong, if this was strictly applied, the university would be in for a shock of their life wouldn’t they?


Penny Wong: Well look we’re not in government and I don’t know what the Government’s proposing to do with this or what they’re proposing, how they’re proposing to take this forward. I remain pretty sceptical about the Government’s reforms when it comes to education, when we know that we have 150,000 fewer apprentices and trainees as a consequence of- or under this Government. So we’ll wait and see what they propose.


Ali Clarke: But what about the Government’s reforms that they’re proposing with regards to unions, Penny Wong? There have been allegations that the CFMEU’s John Setka has been involved in more bullying behaviour. There’s been reports that women have resigned from his chapter, bullying behaviour directed towards the South Australian Secretary and former secretary and Aaron Cartledge. Do you support the Morrison Government’s pushes for new laws that would allow unions, such as the CFMEU, to be deregistered and people like John Setka to be banned if they break the law?


Penny Wong: Well that’s two issues. First in relation to Mr Setka, I’ve made my views I think previously very clear and so has Anthony Albanese. We don’t believe he’s an appropriate person to remain a member of the Labor Party. I was disappointed to see Mr Hilakari from the Victorian Trade Union Movement taking a position contrary to that, which has been taken by Sally McManus who is the national leader of the Trade Union Movement. I think we are entitled to expect certain behaviours from our leaders. We don’t expect them to be perfect but I think leaders who breach- a leader such as Mr Setka who’s breached a family violence court order and who’s been convicted of harassment of his wife, I don’t think is an appropriate person to continue in the Labor Party and I’m disappointed that another trade union person, contrary to his colleagues, might think he was an appropriate person to continue in his role in the trade unions. And we- most trade union- many trade union members – there’s a lot of decent men – but there are many women and I think it’s pretty difficult to explain to a lot of them why someone who has engaged in this sort of behaviour is the appropriate person to continue.


Ali Clarke: It is a quarter to nine. That is the voice of Penny Wong, Labor leader in the Senate and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs. Also joining us on this Super Wednesday is Simon Birmingham, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. And Rebekha Sharkie, Centre Alliance MP for Mayo.


David Bevan: Penny Wong, in a former life you held the water portfolio. The Federal Government has announced an inquiry into the $2 billion water market. Is that overdue?

Penny Wong: Well I think we had – well I think it is – I mean we did have the Auditor-General look at water some time ago, looked at purchases. But since that time we’ve seen a whole range of allegations including Mr Angus Taylor, a Cabinet minister under- in Cabinet with Simon, who was involved in a Cayman Island Company which sold water and that led to – as you might recall – quite a lot of media. So I do think it is a reasonable thing and in the public interest for the public to gain confidence about the integrity of the water market.


David Bevan: And Rebekah Sharkie, many of your constituents in Mayo rely on that water and are affected by water trading. Do you welcome an inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission into the $2 billion water market? Somebody’s being ripped off.


Rebekah Sharkie: You’re certainly right Dave. We have the end of the River Murray; we have the most vulnerable part. We have long supported a call for the Auditor-General to review all of the purchases that have been made to make sure that there is value for money and that we’re getting water back into the river, and same with the efficiency measures. So look I think this is a good first step.


Ali Clarke: Alright on that note Rebekah Sharkie thank you for your time. Penny Wong and Simon Birmingham, thank you to both of you as well.


Simon Birmingham: Thank you.


Ali Clarke: It’s 14 minutes to nine.


Authorised by Senator the Hon Simon Birmingham, South Australia.