Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment
Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Interview on Sky News Live, First Edition with Peter Stefanovic and Laura Jayes.
Topics: Australia-UK free trade negotiations post-Brexit, PM visit to US, ACCC second inquiry into the banking system.
Laura Jayes: Let’s go live to Canberra now, and joining us now is the Minister for Trade and Tourism and Investment Simon Birmingham. Minister, thank you for your time. You’ll be meeting with your UK counterpart today there in Canberra. What’s the basis of this meeting? I don’t think the UK even knows where it stands on Brexit at this point in time. So, are you negotiating anything post-Brexit and on what basis are you doing that?
Simon Birmingham: Well good morning. Yes, I’m pleased to welcome to Canberra the UK International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, and this will be an opportunity for us to talk about the handling of Brexit, the way in which Australia has worked to make sure that we have already in place basic agreements to facilitate continued trade and activity in a post-Brexit environment to give certainty to our businesses. But also, what the world looks like post-Brexit in terms of our trade opportunities and we are eager as we understand the UK to be to establish formal free trade agreement negotiations as soon as Brexit has occurred, as soon as we have certainty around the future there. And that’s critical, because the UK is already a top ten trading partner for Australia and the opportunities for us to lower some of the barriers to trade with the UK for our farmers, for our businesses by doing away some of the quotas and tariff regimes that they currently have as part of their EU relationship is a real opportunity. And we want to seize that, because we’ve proven over the last six years that by doing these types of trade agreements we can lift exports, we can grow Australia’s trade surplus, and we can by doing that of course underpin jobs and our economic strength.
Laura Jayes: And is your counterpart able to tell you when Brexit will actually happen?
Simon Birmingham: Well obviously the government that she’s a member of has a policy to ensure that Brexit occurs at the end of October, they are negotiating under what terms that is and that’s a matter for the UK and the EU to resolve. Our position is that we are already engaged in fruitful, constructive free trade agreement negotiations with the European Union. They’re a very important partner for Australia and we want to finalise those negotiations as quickly as we can. And we stand ready to work with the UK in whatever circumstance they determine for themselves through this process.
Laura Jayes: Minister, the RBA said this week be careful what you wish for when it comes to a deal between the US and China with the ongoing trade war. A deal might actually see some drawbacks for Australia in some export industries like gas. Do you agree with that assessment?
Simon Birmingham: I have stated publically before that we would be concerned if a deal resulted in managed trade outcomes, that when our farmers and businesses we back to compete on fair terms anywhere around the world. And if the US-China trade deal results in lowering tariff barriers and creating something that is more equivalent to the China agreement, well that’s fine. That’s a matter of good negotiation on their part and we will compete on a fair playing field. But if it were to be a managed trade outcome where there were firm commitments to buy certain volumes of different commodities that potentially meant there was a substitution away from Australian purchases, well that would be a concern and we would be monitoring that very closely. But ultimately we have Laura, ultimately taken a bigger picture approach to this which is to say that these types of trade disputes are creating global economic uncertainty. We’ve seen from the IMF, the OECD that growth in trade volumes around the world is down. Australia is bucking that trend a bit but globally it’s down, and that that has had a flow-on effect in terms of the decrease in economic growth globally. And that’s of course seen some countries slip into negative economic growth territory. Not Australia, pleasingly, but it shows that there is a negative consequence from this type of destabilisation and uncertainty which is why we urge dialogue to end those disputes.
Laura Jayes: Okay. Your government has been complaining about big business pandering to activists and activist issues. What’s annoying you so much? Is it this preoccupation with the climate emergency?
Simon Birmingham: Oh look, I don’t think I’d say that it’s preoccupying us or worrying us so much. There’s been some clear messages there that have been given to business in terms of the way in which to advocate for the reforms that business tells us are important, reforms in terms of their ability to enhance productivity, to ensure efficiency in the Australian economy. And those types of reforms are critical to our competitiveness globally, which is what worries me most, is that we to maintain the success we’ve had in recent times of record export volumes, record trade surpluses, our businesses need to be competitive globally and we want to make sure that business is focused as the government is together collaboratively on ensuring that we are competitive in those export markets.
Laura Jayes: Okay. Just finally, the ACCC is calling on another inquiry into the banking system. Today it’s on the front page of The Australian. Does this show that your government’s response to the Royal Commission was inadequate?
Simon Birmingham: No, it doesn’t. It shows that the agencies of government are doing exactly as we would expect them to, which is to maintain scrutiny, maintain engagement. Our focus as a government is on progressing – as the Treasurer has outlined – our responses to the Royal Commission. That will see substantive pieces of legislation working their way through the Parliament. But in the meantime, we would expect agencies – be they the ACCC, ASIC or otherwise – to continue to do their job and no doubt this particular matter will be considered appropriately by the Treasurer.

Laura Jayes: And not the Treasurer but the Prime Minister is heading to Washington later this week what message will he be taking to Donald Trump?
Simon Birmingham: Well, our relationship with the United States is an important one. It is our largest investment partner and so, in an economic sense, the US remains very important. China may be our largest trading partner and we have important relations there, but the US being our close ally and traditionally and still our largest investment partner, there’s an economic piece to that message. And of course on the trade front, we have continued to urge engagement and for the US and China to find a way to resolve their dispute. But more generally, the PM I’m sure will be talking and working with President Trump about the success of our relationship. It is a true partnership. We are an ally and a partner who carries our weight fully, and what we want with the US is to make sure that they continue as they have to cooperate and to work especially across our region for continued stability and economic growth.
Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, appreciate your time this morning and good luck with the negotiations with the UK. I think Pete and I- I think I can speak for Pete saying that every day we’re trying to see through the mud which is Brexit.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much, Laura.