Topics: Indonesian trade; US China trade; China Australia relations; climate change.

Transcript, E&OE

15 October 2019

David Speers: Simon Birmingham, thanks very much for your time this afternoon. Could you clarify the trade deal — does it open up the prospect of more Indonesian workers coming to Australia?

Simon Birmingham: No David, there’s no new labour market testing waivers created under this agreement. The only area in which there’s a bit of a lift is in terms of the number of working holiday makers-

David Speers: What’s the lift there?

Simon Birmingham: So these are young people aged under 30 who come to Australia, like many people would be aware of, for decades – in terms of young people who come and work for a year or so, travel around the country, spend their money. For Indonesia, a quota of 1000 working holiday makers was created by the Rudd Labor government. Under this agreement we’re lifting that to 4000 initially, and extending it out to 5000 over a period of time.

David Speers: That is quite an increase. When they come for a holiday- a working holiday visa, is there any labour market testing there that makes sure an Australian isn’t available for the job?

Simon Birmingham: Well no David, these are working holiday makers expect to have the right to be able to go into other countries and be able to work in those countries while they travel around, and we’re providing those rights to young people to come here. Often these people are doing jobs that are seasonally nature, that people in Australia are less inclined to do, around-

David Speers: Not always. Fruit picking seasonal work, though.

Simon Birmingham: It’s not always, but pretty much the largest categories are in the agricultural sector, in the tourism and hospitality sector, travelling around, being able to work in those communities at times of peak interest, peak demand from employees, and then moving on.

David Speers: But this is a concern for unions though. They reckon Australians should get those jobs. So why isn’t there any labour market testing for those jobs?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I mean, I’d firstly make that point that the unions saying young Australians shouldn’t be entitled to work overseas when they travel overseas — because I suspect many trade union officials have taken advantage of those rights over the years. So this is a capped scheme, it’s targeted to people under 30. And the evidence shows this very clearly. [Audio skip] been saying they’re worried that they’ll all be in health and aged care sectors. Well, the tax data shows us that less than four per cent of working holiday makers spend any time working in the health or aged care sector. So overwhelmingly it is in those seasonal industries like agriculture and tourism.

David Speers: Does this trade deal with Indonesia also commit to negotiate new arrangements over the next three years for more temporary skilled workers?

Simon Birmingham: No, look, what it does is simply cement in place, essentially, existing provisions in terms of access for skilled workers, business leaders, and the like to be able to work here, which are no different to existing arrangements in that regard. There’s some very limited- small numbers in terms of the hundreds of some training places and opportunities created for, again, Indonesian students in relation to particular work access in Australia.

David Speers: So this union concern — there’s a commitment a new agreement in the next three years to bring in more temporary skilled workers from Indonesia; that’s wrong?

Simon Birmingham: It’s an agreement that if the parties want to, they can talk in three years’ time. And if they can come to an agreement in three years’ time, well, then that would of course be brought back for consideration and down the track. So there’s nothing secret in that, it’s there to say: yes, a three-year juncture if people want to have a discussion mutually agreeable to both Indonesia and Australia about future access, everyone would have to agree at the time.

David Speers: Let’s move to the US China trade situation. Over the weekend a partial agreement, we were told, was made — although Donald Trump went a bit further than that, he called it the greatest and biggest deal ever made for American farmers in the history of the United States.

Simon Birmingham: A love fest, I think he said too

David Speers: A love fest, he said. Do you know what it involves and what it might mean for Australia?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we’re all still waiting for details. The US Administration highlighted that there would be certain commitments in relation to additional agriculture purchases as part of it.

David Speers: It was 40 to $50 billion worth of US agricultural goods being bought by China. So will that come at the expense of buying Australian farm produce?

Simon Birmingham: We’re not too phased at present. It’s not clear over what time frame that commitment exists. The only product lines that have been identified are soybeans and pork, in terms of any public commentary to date. Neither of those are significant areas of Australian exports to China, so if that’s where it’s active, it’s very low-risk for Australia.

We’ll of course continue to monitor. We said very directly to the United States, as I have publicly before, that we hope this trade agreement if struck is consistent with World Trade Organization standards. We back our farmers and our businesses to compete on fair terms with anybody else. So if the US negotiates tariff access into China that’s comparable to what we have under the China Australia free trade agreement, well then, we’ll compete on those terms and that would be a fair outcome. But managed trade outcomes might be something we’d have a greater concern about if sectors, but we don’t see any evidence of that yet. We’ll keep looking closely.

Overall, that’s why things like the Indonesia deal are so important. Give our grain growers tariff free access for 500,000 tonnes of sales into Indonesia as another market that opens up for.

David Speers: A couple of other things — on China, the debate continues on both sides about the relationship with China. Your colleague Peter Dutton says the policies of the Chinese Communist Party are inconsistent with Australian values; do you agree with him?

Simon Birmingham: I think as the Prime Minister has clearly addressed, the values of the Communist Party is and are different from the values of a government in a liberal democracy like Australia, that’s a statement of the obvious. But it’s not inconsistent in terms of our ability, as we’ve demonstrated, to be able to work with one another as a nation, to forge a strategic partnership, to be able to open up trade ties, people to people ties. We do it with our eyes wide open, we address all of the different issues that respond to those as China’s power and influence grows significantly. But engagement is crucial to make sure that we can continue to shape that direction of growth as best we can, and make sure that Australia is well placed to continue to benefit from it.

David Speers: And- still seems to be a little bit of confusion as to whether Australia regards China as a developed economy or not. Is it?

Simon Birmingham: Well, China is clearly developed relative to where they were, if you look at them — relative to the scale of most other economies in the world. Yes, of course they are and- are urging is that China, now having taken such huge development leaps along the way, is to engage in international for a commensurate with their size and scale. And that means not seeking the type of concessions that would have been available in the past.

David Speers: Final one on climate change — do you think we are facing a climate emergency?

Simon Birmingham: I think climate change is real and that action is more important than symbolism. [Audio skip] getting on and doing by-

David Speers: But are we facing a climate emergency?

Simon Birmingham: I think it is a very critical problem for the world. It’s why we have to implement and deliver upon the Paris Agreement. It’s why I’m pleased to be part of a government that is going to exceed Australia’s 2020 targets for emissions reductions.

David Speers: But I’m just asking, do you think we’re facing a climate emergency?

Simon Birmingham: David, I know the Labor Party and others want to create a great distraction about the words-

David Speers: What’s your view?

Simon Birmingham: I think it is a very important issue that we have to address…

David Speers: Is it an emergency?

Simon Birmingham: … and we are addressing, and we ought to address it. But I’m not going to be drawn into some distraction over the theatrics of parliamentary motions, when what’s more important is delivering on a climate solutions fund, making sure that all of those investments are realised, so that not only do we exceed the 2020 targets, but let’s exceed the 2030 targets as well.

David Speers: So it’s not an emergency?

Simon Birmingham: It’s critically important that we get the job done and we are, and we will.

David Speers: Simon Birmingham, thank you.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you.