MONDAY 4 NOVEMBER 2019
PRIME MINISTER: I’m pleased to be here in Bangkok in Thailand with Minister Birmingham as part of the ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit. Australia has had a relationship with ASEAN for some 45 years and so this is an important place for Australia to be. It’s important for us to be here because one in five jobs depends on trade. And our trade with the ASEAN nations has been strong and it has been growing and we want to see it continue to grow and through the RCEP Agreement which has been a major issue which we have been working through as partners for some time now and we continue both here over these days and into next year. This is an opportunity to take trade forward for a set of countries which encompasses half of the world ‘s population, around about a third of the world ‘s economy and so the opportunity to be part of that, centred here on the Indo-Pacific which Australia’s strategic focus is incredibly important. It is about jobs and also about the security of the region, keeping it open and ensuring that all of the independent and sovereign nations in our part of the world will continue to engage with each other, supply chains are built up which are good for Australia. We are here because of the jobs of Australians and ensuring the future jobs of Australians.
Before I go to other matters, I was also pleased, as I’m sure all Australians were, to get the news and particularly for those on the ground of the rainfall in the western parts of New South Wales and up in Queensland as well, reports of anywhere between 15mm and even over 100mm in Queensland. Now, I know this is not breaking the drought but I tell you, it is a respite rain. It is respite rain which will give some real encouragement and some peace of mind to people right across our drought-affected areas in the country and we are hoping and praying for more and the Government is obviously going through the final stages of its next set of announcements when it comes to providing drought support and when Simon and I return to Australia, we will obviously be pursuing that as measures are coming up, working with our partners both in the agricultural sector and within the Government to deliver the next round of responses. We do not set and forget on drought, we continue to step up as things continue to progress in drought-affected areas in the country and we continue to make our response.
But here, back in Thailand, back here at the ASEAN and the East Asia Summit, the focus is on continuing on working with our partners and yesterday I had the opportunity to meet with the Premier Li Keqiang with Simon and the rest of the team. It was a very positive meeting, it was a very honest meeting, a meeting that was very honest about what we are already achieving in our partnership and China’s economic growth has brought great benefits to Australia and we welcome that and it is not just here I have done it, I have done in all places where I have been in various summits and other gatherings around the world. That growth in China will remain important for Australia in the future and so we acknowledge that and some $200 billion in trade occurs between Australia and China on a yearly basis. This is massively important to us. We have 200,000 Chinese students in Australia, we have almost $70 billion of investment. China is our fifth largest investor, of course the United States is our biggest investing partner. But this relationship is already achieving things and continues to achieve things. But we want to ensure it achieves more in the future and it was a very candid meeting about the ways we can ensure that that is achieved for both countries in the future and so I think the Premier Li Keqiang for the honest engagement we had yesterday. We recognise we have a great relationship but we know it can be even better and when we address important issues about how we continue to engage and I look forward to doing that in the future. So with that, I am happy to take some questions.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, what are examples of those important issues that you continue to engage? Can you give us an example?
PRIME MINISTER: The regularity of our engagement on the strategic economic dialogue, for example. That is an important part of the comprehensive partnership that we have where you can deal with issues whether it is the anti-dumping measures we have currently in relation to barley or there are issues around the licensing of abattoirs in Australia. These are just very practical commercial issues that are part of our partnership and these are matters that we are seeking to progress and appreciate the hearing we had on those matters yesterday.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask strictly on RCEP, you’ve got the meeting tonight so it’s a little bit pre-emptive but how important is it, not just to Australia but to other RCEP countries, that India is part of the final deal and is there a prospect of the other 15 nations proceeding with finalising it and waiting for India to jump on board?
PRIME MINISTER: The door will always be open to India and it has always been our view and of many that sit around the table that this is a bigger and better deal with India in it. I think patience is the virtue in this and continuing to enable that to be achieved and there has been enormous progress made and Simon might want to speak specifically about this. The text of RCEP is done. The market access arrangements substantively between all the participants is also done, but we want to keep the opportunity for this arrangement to be bigger. Overall, I think it is about 32 is it is, Simon, of the world’s economy that is covered with India in. It’s just under 30 per cent with India out. But I think it is important to have India in and that is certainly our preference and to leave open the door, the mechanism. Let’s not forget, this RCEP arrangement is twice as big as TPP. That’s how big it is. This would be one for the first time that will bring together India and China into that arrangement. And so these are important things worth being patient for.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, in your meeting with the Chinese Premier, did you discuss a potential visit to China at all or did he invite you to visit China?
PRIME MINISTER: We discussed many things. I am not going to go into the details of all of it because that is the nature of these meetings but we talked about the need to keep up the continuity of our dialogue. The meetings that you hold as part of our comprehensive strategic partnerships are really important. We have had many, many meetings and Simon has met with his counterpart on two occasions in the last year, Marise Payne has done the same thing. And so there is a lot of that happening in the relationship and so we want to see that continue and I look forward to those meetings with my counterparts again in the future.
JOURNALIST: By the way you’ve been speaking it sounds unlikely India will be part of the agreement later today. Is that your expectation?
PRIME MINISTER: I might let Simon comment on that.
SENATOR THE HON. SIMON BIRMINGHAM, MINISTER FOR TRADE, TOURISM AND INVESTMENT: Thanks, PM. I think it is important with RCEP absolutely to appreciate firstly the scale of RCEP, the degree of difficulty in landing a trade agreement of this scale is (inaudible) with its size and the fact we are talking about 32 per cent of global GDP, 29 per cent if you don’t have India still shows that it is an enormous agreement. Now, my understanding is, and I welcome the fact from all of our dialogue with India, that India is going to continue discussions and negotiations. Our door, as the PM said, is always open to India. We have been through this sort of process with big trade agreements before in relation to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Of course, we had hoped and expected the United States to be part of that. The door in the TPP remains firmly open to the US. We want India to be a partner here as well but we have to make sure that progress is realised amongst the 15 nations who are there without India to make sure that we do capture the benefits that can come from greater openness within our region, a greater integration in terms of value chains, more common rules of origin. These are the things that make it easier for Australian businesses to do business through the region and that is what allows us to keep growing our exports. In all of this, we have to remember that over the last year, Australia has achieved record levels of exports, record trade surpluses and all of that fuels jobs in Australian businesses, and that is why we keep pushing ahead to create more job opportunities for those businesses.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, China has made it sound as if the Premier had a couple of quite stern messages for you. Did you have some stern messages for him?
PRIME MINISTER: I wouldn’t characterise it in those terms at all. I am not quite sure why you have. Because I have seen the statement that the Chinese have issued and I didn’t read any of that into that statement at all and that was certainly not the nature of that discussion yesterday at all. I thought it was a very positive discussion, a very good-natured one, one that understood the value of the relationship and wanting to put more value into the relationship. That was very much the nature of the discussion. So no, I wouldn’t characterise it in the terms you have at all.
JOURNALIST: How can you characterise it as a good relationship when obviously, and you said that it was a candid meeting, you were upfront with each other about certain things. But just last week in Beijing issued a pretty stern rebuke to your own Foreign Minister after she raised in a speech concerns about China’s human rights record. Is there a disconnect between saying the relationship is strong yet every time we raise an issue there does seem to be this public outcry?
PRIME MINISTER: There is an honest acknowledgement, as we did yesterday, that we are two very different countries. We are a liberal democracy. They are a Communist Party state. We are not seeking to adopt their system and they are not seeking to adopt ours and so there is an honesty about understanding the differences between those two outlooks. And that was honestly discussed yesterday and understood. And so those types of disagreements from time to time, both the Premier and I are very committed to ensure don’t overtake or overwhelm the rest of the relationship. I know in the commentary it can, but in the substance of the relationship, when the dialogue is taking place between leaders, it does not and it did not yesterday. There was, I think, a maturity in the discussion yesterday that understood the nature of our two countries and where the benefits are by working closely together on the things we agree on, understanding the areas where we have a difference of view. There is nothing, I think, extraordinary about that. There is nothing extraordinary about that at all.
SENATOR THE HON. SIMON BIRMINGHAM, MINISTER FOR TRADE, TOURISM AND INVESTMENT: Matt, can I just add there, tonight I will leave to go to Shanghai, joined with 200 Australian businesses attending the China International export expo and we are there at the invitation of the Chinese government. I am there, 200 Australian businesses are there as a demonstration of the strength of the relationship. Our presence will be one of the largest of any nations who are there and we are doing so, cementing those positive aspects of the relationship and it is a demonstration that, yes, there are as they always are points of difference but the points of difference don’t prevent you from proceeding in the areas of cooperation.
PRIME MINISTER: There was also a very good recognition and acknowledgement that Australia’s position on these relationships is done independently and as a sovereign nation in pursuit of our own interests, that we engage directly, that our relationship with China is one about China and Australia and nothing else. We are pursuing our interests, they are pursuing theirs and there is quite an overlap. And we talked about overlapped in everything from the environment to plastics pollution, through to the very good work we do on health, particularly up in Papua New Guinea on malaria, we were talking about issues of infrastructure development. There was quite a range of issues we discussed where the interests completely aligned. And where that happens, great, and where they don’t, well then they’re not matters that we take forward together.
JOURNALIST: Are you disappointed that President Trump isn’t here?
PRIME MINISTER: It is not for me to be disappointed or not disappointed one way or the other. That is entirely a matter for the United States and entirely a matter for the hosts. We are a guest and we have been very happy to accept the invitation, as we have done always, and I thank ASEAN in particular and I thank the Thai Prime Minister for his very warm welcome to Australia and for the way that ASEAN leaders have engaged Australia in these events for many years. So I will leave those matters to the Americans and to the hosts.
JOURNALIST: Sorry, PM, just back on China, APEC has been cancelled obviously. Would you like to… it’s now been three years since a Prime Minister has met with President Xi, would you like to…?
PRIME MINISTER: I have seen President Xi on a number of occasions.
JOURNALIST: Sorry, an official bilateral capacity. Would you like to get some of that early in the next 12 months or the next meeting such as this? How important is that in terms of symbolism?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, as you know, I am not one who is big on symbolism. I am big on actions and the practical value of the relationship and I just ran through the key statistics, certainly the economic side of that relationship. We will continue to progress the relationship through the partnership structure that we have and what I received yesterday was a strong commitment of China wanting to do the same. So we know what the next steps are in taking the relationship forward. We discussed those yesterday and we look forward to pursuing those in the months ahead.
JOURNALIST: Did you raise with China the detention of Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun and if not, why not?
PRIME MINISTER: We deal with lots of sensitive issues in these discussions, as we did again, and that is the nature of the candid relationship that we have, but we deal with those in those private discussions.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you have said that the US presence here is a matter for them and the host nation. But yourself and senior ministers as recently as last Friday with Linda Reynolds have called for the US to really ramp up its efforts in the Indo-Pacific. So how does it sit with you to see pictures coming in overnight of Donald Trump sitting at a UFC fight at Madison Square Garden instead of being here engaged in these dialogues?
PRIME MINISTER: It is not about how it sits with me. This job isn’t about how I feel. This job is about what we do and what we do in Australia’s interests. See, I am here with Simon to pursue Australia’s interests and jobs for Australians and the safety of Australians in the wonderful work we do with our ASEAN partners. I am sure many of you know the tremendous relationships we have on counterterrorism across our ASEAN partners. I will be meeting with President Widodo later today and we will talk about that. I have just been meeting with Prime Minister Mahathir with whom we have got an outstanding relationship when it comes to dealing with security matters within our region. So that is why I am here. I am not here to run a commentary on people in other places. I am here to pursue the interests of Australians and their jobs.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask, how would you respond to concerns about a toxic culture within the Department of Treasury and what would you say to any federal department who is creating an environment where staff are uncomfortable?
PRIME MINISTER: Could you be more specific?
JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] that the Deputy Secretary of the Department is under investigation and we were told that there are concerns about a toxic culture in the Treasury.
PRIME MINISTER: Well, if you are referring to allegations regarding a public servant working for the Department of Treasury, you would also be aware that they would be matters that would be dealt with by the Department and the Department’s Secretary and there is a proper process that would follow in those circumstances and my job would be to ensure that I allowed those proper processes to be followed and reach their conclusions. That is what my job would be.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, so India [inaudible] but we have bilateral relationships with… trade relationships with all those other members plus others, so what benefit is RCEP to us without India?
PRIME MINISTER: There is a bigger benefit to Australia in the broader integration of the Indo-Pacific. Simon made the point about value chains, I make the point about supply chains. The integration of the economies of the Indo-Pacific is incredibly important for the prosperity of the region, but also its security, of which Australia is also a beneficiary. This RCEP Agreement encapsulates, if you like, the economic dimension of this Indo-Pacific concept that we have been pursuing now for many years, and not just Australia. It is articulation from ASEAN was led by Indonesia and we strongly supported that. So this… I hesitate to use the word because it is jargon, but this architecture, which our foreign affairs professionals refer to these things, this is actually very important for the region because it does provide, I think, a stability both to the commercial nature of relationships between businesses that are working in the region and giving that more certainty and actually showing a clear way forward that we see businesses in this region all dealing with each other in a much more free and open commercial environment. Now, that is good for Australia because so much of what we do commercially in the world is in this part of the world, and the more successful this part of the world is, the more integrated it is, the more free and open trade is, the freedom of movement, the freedom of navigation, the freedom of overflight. All of these issues are so important to people in Australia having jobs, getting jobs and realising their own ambitions for themselves. So it is one of those big agreements, Simon, and that is why we need to be patient about it and so I wouldn’t describe it at all in terms of carveouts. I would talk about it in the inverse of that with a very wide, open door. I will be meeting with Prime Minister Modi later today and of course, I will be meeting with him in January and there will be further opportunities there.
JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] there is also quite a strategic element to this relationship…
PRIME MINISTER: Oh, massively.
JOURNALIST: … just as a trade relationship, just in stabilising strategic relationships. What factors would be involved in that, how do you see that playing out in terms of the strategic…
PRIME MINISTER: Well, RCEP is the economic dimension of this. And, you know, where there is greater trade and prosperity being shared amongst all of the countries in this region, well, that promotes stability itself by definition and that is why it is important. I mean, ASEAN has been a great success over the last 45 years. They didn’t actually come together to be a trading bloc or anything like that, as Prime Minister Mahathir just reminded me, and he’d know better than anyone because he’s been around pretty much the whole time. He saw it as they did, as a way for these countries to preserve and pursue their own independence and sovereignty in this part of the world. That has led to them engaging in the way that they have and Australia has been a massive beneficiary of that by engaging with ASEAN.
SENATOR THE HON. SIMON BIRMINGHAM, MINISTER FOR TRADE, TOURISM AND INVESTMENT: Simon, stability isn’t just achieved through government-to-government cooperation and the fact that RCEP will provide a stronger framework for businesses to cooperate, for the flow of people and all those aspects creates a greater sense of regional stability as well. In terms of your first question about, yes, Australia has agreements in place with all of the other RCEP partners are present except India. Some of those agreements, though, are old and some of those agreements largely focus on opening up the goods services’ market. There are real gains that Australia can get in terms of our services economy, financial services, areas of education, health sectors, in terms of the opportunity for Australian businesses to be better integrated in the work they do and to have more open access to work in some of the other RCEP partners. So we are very focused on how we can value-add to those existing agreements. There is a regional piece there that provides the type of strategic benefits the PM has spoken of but there are also clearly still direct tangible gains that we can make by improving on the FTAs that already exist.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, who is your tip for the Melbourne Cup?
PRIME MINISTER: Well, I think it is Vow and Declare, they are about 12-1. Now, I think I was on even worse odds than that at the last election. So at 12-1, that probably looks pretty good in terms of… I don’t know if Newspoll is running something on the Melbourne Cup this year but I wouldn’t be listening to that if they were. It would be great to see an Australian trained and ridden horse actually get home in the Melbourne Cup. There is a lot of international competitors this year so at 12-1, compared to some recent bets in the political sphere, that probably seems like a pretty good day. Thanks very much.