Topic:  UK-Free Trade Agreement; EU trade deal; Budget; Coal mine cancellations;  

08:55AM ACDT
Friday, 5 May 2023


Laura Jayes: Joining me now is the Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Birmingham. You had a thing or two to do with this when you were trade minister, because these things do take some time. So, look, this government is claiming it’s been expedited. How? By how much?


Simon Birmingham: Well, good morning, LJ. It’s great to be with you. And yes, as the former trade minister who launched our negotiations with the UK, I’m thrilled to see that it will enter into force on the 31st of May. Of course, negotiations were concluded while Dan Tehan was Trade Minister and by Scott Morrison directly negotiating the final elements with then Boris Johnson in the UK. So, the Albanese Government is now seeing implemented the last of the trade deals that the former Coalition government negotiated and sealed for Australia. And during our time we managed to open up new trade deals with Japan, Korea, China, across the ASEAN nations through the RCEP agreement. The Trans-Pacific Partnership giving us access into Canada, Mexico and elsewhere. Agreements with Peru, India and the United Kingdom and indeed others in a range of ways. So, it’s one of the great achievements of our time in government to expand Australia’s trade access. The UK agreement will be great for Australian consumers and making goods and services cheaper and more available here, great for Australian exporters, making our exports more cheaper and more easily available in the United Kingdom. The test for the Labor Government in terms of their trade policy credentials isn’t on delivering agreements that we negotiated. It’s on whether they can now manage to build upon those agreements, seal new ones and expand market access further than what we had managed to negotiate into the future.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, so Europe’s the next one, right? Is that on track? I mean, there was an unfortunate mispronunciation of the European leader’s name, but that shouldn’t stand in the way, shall it?


Simon Birmingham: I don’t think those things will be a problem. European negotiations have gone on for a long time and negotiating trade deals with the European Union is never easy. Of course, you’ve got many different competing interests across the EU, but I would be hopeful that the climate is right in terms of European approach to engagement with the rest of the world. The fact that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and that war is one that has really focused and sharpened European minds in terms of the importance of engaging with other democratic liberal market economies around the world. So we should be seizing that opportunity. But the test there will be that it’s a good agreement. We saw New Zealand conclude an agreement with the EU where much of the New Zealand farming sector was concerned that they didn’t get sufficient market access, they didn’t get the gains that you would expect to see in a trade agreement. And so, Don Farrell, as Mr. Albanese’s trade minister, has his work cut out for him to make sure that any deal signed with the European Union is a good one for Australia. And the test as to whether it’s a gold standard deal isn’t how many pages it is or how many chapters it is. It is whether it strips away tariffs and increases access in ways that make it easier for Australian producers and service providers to get into the European market.


Laura Jayes: All right. We’re going to see the budget next week. Of course, highly anticipated the speculation and it’s come from Andrew Clennell, so it’s got to be spot on. That we’ll have a brief surplus. That’s something that you weren’t-


Simon Birmingham: That well known economist Andrew Clennell?


Laura Jayes: Yeah, well, he I mean, he’s- his mouth is pretty spot on.


Simon Birmingham: He has other sources, I know.


Laura Jayes: I don’t, I don’t reckon he’s wrong.


Simon Birmingham: So, if we do see a surplus for what is being speculated as the 2022/23 financial year. So that’s the one just coming to a close, that will be very much a function of the strong economy that was left in place at the last election. And remember, the 2022/23 budget was initially one handed down by the Coalition. The Labor government continued the very conservative commodity price forecast that we put in place. And so, we’ll be very pleased to see a surplus in this financial year, the last year for which we provided a budget and the test of the Labor Party will be can they maintain that type of budget strength going forward? One of the things I’ve seen speculated on in recent weeks that really worries me is suggestions that the Labor Party might be planning on changing the way commodity price forecasting occurs in the future. That’s a real worry because if they take an approach that assumes there will be more revenue, then they’re likely to spend that increased revenue and that means we won’t see this type of upside. One of the things that are conservative approach to commodity price forecasting delivered was the fact that we saw big improvements in the budget bottom line because revenue exceeded expectations and that meant that you actually had a real buffer there and has made a surplus possible. And if they tinker with that, which I remember, Wayne Swan tinkered with that back when Jim Chalmers was his chief of staff. Will then, then you end up with the situation the previous Labor government left us in, where budget forecasts ended up with outcomes worse than predicted rather than this one, which is an outcome far better than predicted because of conservative forecasting and a strong economy.


Laura Jayes: Yeah, well, we will see in looking forward to going to lock up on Tuesday to pore over the details. We broke this story at the top of the program. Tanya Plibersek has just cancelled two more coal projects in Queensland, in central Queensland, and the reason she’s given is because the proponents of these mines haven’t provided additional information requested about how their mines and these projects would actually affect the environment. Now the requests go back as far as 2013 and 2018. Is that fair enough on this reasoning?


Simon Birmingham:  I’ve only just caught up with a bit of that news and I saw some of Ross Greenwood’s comments that they do go back up to a decade almost in terms of the history and the requests for the provision of information. So, I think what will be important here is, is to under scrutiny, ensure that proper processes have all been followed, that fair opportunity has been accorded to the project proponents. Ultimately, if these have all been done by the book under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and indeed are bringing to a close a very long and drawn-out process well people may well think fair enough and it’s probably nothing for anybody to grandstand on either side of the ledger. But of course, we want to see that’s the case and that there’s no political motivation or otherwise underpinning this. If it has been done for grandstanding purposes, well, that would be quite inappropriate. There’s a clear legal playbook to follow and it needs to have been followed.


Laura Jayes: Simon Birmingham, good to talk to you. Thanks so much.


Simon Birmingham: Thanks, LJ. My pleasure.