SENATOR THE HON SIMON BIRMINGHAM
Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment
Interview on Radio National, AM, with Sabra Lane.
Topics: Hong Kong violence, EU geographic indicators
Sabra Lane: Feta, Taleggio, Scotch Beef. These are some of the names the European Union wants to protect for its farmers and stop Australian producers from using any of those terms, officially they’re known as geographic indicators. The Federal Government has released a list of 236 product names this morning that the EU wants to protect. The Union is in negotiations with Australia for a free trade deal. The Government is now seeking feedback from farmers and companies about those names.
The Trade Minister is Simon Birmingham, he joined me earlier.
Sabra Lane: Senator Birmingham, thanks for joining the program.
Simon Birmingham: Great to be with you.
Sabra Lane: Before we talk trade, could I have your response to what’s happened in Hong Kong?
Simon Birmingham: These are serious developments, and this has, of course, been a very serious ongoing area of concern. Australia has had a very clear position here, that we urge respect, firstly for the one country two systems approach. That’s what we’ve done economically in our trade negotiations, and we urge that respect in terms of the commitments made to the people of Hong Kong and their right to freedom of assembly, and that those rights ought to be respected, and that all parties ought to work towards peaceful solutions.
Sabra Lane: And what’s the Government’s advice to Australians in this city or perhaps planning to travel there?
Simon Birmingham: We did upgrade the travel advisory in relation to Hong Kong a little while ago in relation to the escalation of events that we had seen. Obviously, Australians need to exercise some caution, and no doubt the air traffic delays that have been experienced will, of course, give many people cause to reconsider. And that’s a concern in terms of the impact it has on the economy of Hong Kong, the people of Hong Kong, and that’s why we would urge all parties to work to try to peacefully resolve these matters.
Sabra Lane: How worried is the Government about China flexing its muscles to stop the protesters, given their rhetoric on this was significantly increased yesterday? Officials saying that these protesters are showing sprouting terrorism.
Simon Birmingham: Taking a peaceful and respectful approach is essential, and Australia urges that to be the case. That to respect for freedom of assembly is something that we value very much as a nation, and we urge others to respect to. This, of course, has been ongoing for a prolonged period of time now, and that’s why dialogue is important to try to peacefully resolve it.
Sabra Lane: Alright. To the EU negotiations on geographic indicators. It’s a long list that the Government’s published. Realistically, how many of them might prove problematic for Australian producers?
Simon Birmingham: Sabra, many of these terms are, of course, very geographically specific to the EU, and indeed are quite prescriptive in the way that they would seek to be protected by the EU. For example, Camembert de Normandie is sought to be protected by the EU, but that would not prohibit Australian cheese producers from continuing to make Camembert. So we have a number of issues here where I expect they won’t prove to be an issue, but there are some sensitive ones. That’s why the Government has made no promises to the EU. We are going to go through this process; hear from Australian industry about what they value and what’s important to them, and then we’ll take that feedback into our negotiations to try to secure the best possible trade agreement with the European Union for Australian farmers and businesses.
Sabra Lane: Feta is on that list. The EU would prefer that Australian farmers making feta cheese find another name for it. Is that fair?
Simon Birmingham: Well that is one where I expect there will be some strong representations from industry. Today, after I’ve done some media commitments, I’m heading out, talking to a range of agricultural producers. In the apple sector, where we expect to hear some who see increased export opportunity, but also a dairy farmer, a cheese maker, where I expect there will be some concerns. I want to hear those concerns firsthand. You know, Europe is a huge potential market opportunity for Australia – 500 million plus consumers. Our third largest export market despite the very tight restrictions we have in terms of exports in a number of areas. So if we can get those restrictions eased, there’s enormous potential upside, but we want to respect those who already have interests in terms of issues like feta. And we will work carefully with the industry and farmers in that respect.
Sabra Lane: Alright. If – and I’m not saying this will happen – but if farmers here lost the right to call their cheese feta, what would that mean?
Simon Birmingham: Well look, those are certainly hypotheticals for down the track. There are a number of ways we can look to try to address some of these issues in dealing with the EU. We can look in terms of the way a term is used. Does it need to have the word Australian attached to it, for example. Are there grandfathering opportunities or are there alternatives? The wine industry did this type of agreement with the European Union a number of years ago now, and the Australian wine industry has only continued to boom and grow in the period since. And so what we can see is that the lived experience is one where you can manage it. But we’re going to be very sensitive to those, particularly in our dairy sector, who’ve been doing it tough on a number of levels. And that’s why we’re going to engage carefully and closely with them over this three month objections period, but also then beyond right throughout the EU negotiations.
Sabra Lane: Might it be valuable to come up with a completely new name for a product like that. For example, in Spain, the Spanish stop calling their sparkling wine champagne and they devised a new name for it – cava – and they’ve grown their exports by not competing with champagne. Is that a possibility?
Simon Birmingham: Those are always options, and that’s indeed why I cited the Australian wine industry example there where they have enjoyed tremendous growth. Now, we’re going to work through this trade agreement to do a number of things: to get the best possible market access for Australian farmers and businesses, to reduce the tariffs, to increase or eliminate the quotas. We hope to see the vast majority of tariffs that the EU impose upon Australian goods eliminated. To grow our services sector, and to ensure investment flows freely between us as well. Get a world quality trade agreement, but also there are defensive interests for Australia in terms of some of those cheesemakers, spirits producers, and we’re going to listen to them very carefully and make sure that if there is a need to adapt, we support them through that adaptation.
Sabra Lane: Prosecco isn’t on that list right now; it was covered under an earlier agreement. But does that not mean, though, that Italian winemakers and the EU haven’t given up? They might push for an updated listing with prosecco in it?
Simon Birmingham: Look, they may well use the terms of the existing Australia EU Wine Agreement to seek us to consider prosecco, and if they do, then we’ll use the process under that agreement. But in terms of these free trade agreement negotiations, our view is that Australia’s wine industry worked with the European Union a number of years ago, considered all the different terms that the EU claimed for protection at the time. In the end prosecco did not make that list, and Australia’s wine industry has continued to invest and grow in the area of prosecco, and that ought to be respected that the EU had a chance back then, they agreed a set of terms and prosecco was not on the list at the time.
Sabra Lane: The Government’s had this list for a long time, six months it’s been suggested. Why have you released it now well clear of this year’s election?
Simon Birmingham: Look, we’ve been working through the European Free Trade Agreements for negotiations for quite some time. That’s right. They started last year, and they will take quite a long period of time. It’s about launching this process when we think we can get maximum leverage back on the EU in terms of securing the best possible market trade access offer from them, which is where negotiations will now shift to. So whilst we undertake this domestic process of considering the terms and names that the EU seeks protection over, we now look to the EU to offer to Australia an increased amount of access, for example, our sheep meat producers, who currently have a tiny volume that they’re allowed to send into Europe compared to our counterparts in New Zealand. We don’t think that’s fair, and we want to make sure that in the future, we’re able to compete on fair terms with a country like New Zealand into Europe. 500 million plus consumers, as I said before, and future potential upside.
Sabra Lane: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining AM this morning.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you Sabra.
[End of excerpt]
Sabra Lane: That’s the Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.