ABC afternoon briefing, with Greg Jennett
Greg Jennett: Alright, well Federal Cabinet's meeting in Canberra today, in person for many and remotely for some. That means that Trade Minister and Special Minister of State, Don Farrell, is in town and joins us I believe for the first time, since being sworn in, in our studio. Welcome to Afternoon Briefing. Why don't we start out in the Trade portfolio because you've covered a bit of ground since you were sworn in, going to the World Trade Organisation headquarters. Now that happened at around the time Richard Marles was going to Singapore where he met General Wei, the Chinese military leader. How do those two things come together when it comes to the resolution of our trade disagreements with Beijing?
Senator Don Farrell, Minister for Trade and Tourism: Look, I issued an invitation before I left Australia to go to the World Trade Organisation. Unfortunately, the Chinese Minister only had a limited time in Geneva so we didn't get an opportunity to meet. But I'm hoping that at some point in time we can meet and I can express to the Chinese minister our concern about some of the decisions China has made in respect to Australian agricultural products.
Jennett: And even before we got to the, you know, root causes of some of those disputes, the mere fact of a second meeting, in this case, the one you've requested - what would that tell you about rapprochement or countries getting back into a dialogue?
Minister for Trade and Tourism: I think the change of government gives us an opportunity to reset the long-term arrangements with the Chinese. We've suffered very significantly over the last two or three years with increased tariffs on things like wine, like meat, like barley, like dairy products. We want a sensible relationship with China. We want access to their markets and we want an opportunity to explain to the Chinese our concerns about some of the decisions that they've made. At the moment some of those things are disputes before the World Trade Organisation. In all of these things, it's much better to sort them out by discussion rather than through disputation.
Jennett: Right. That was going to be my question because as you sit here today not having secured a meeting, which seems the preferable, or if you like, the more likely path towards resolution – bilateral or through these WTO processes which let's face it, have a history of being difficult and slow?
Minister for Trade and Tourism: Look, they're certainly difficult and slow, although the interesting thing is that despite the appeal processes of the WTO not working, as a result of some of the decisions that former President Trump made, the Chinese have agreed with Australia to an appeal process. So if we were to get a successful outcome at the world trade process, or not get a successful outcome, there is an appeal process now available to us.
In all of these things, it's always much better if we can sort these things out by negotiation. So, in answer to your question, bilateral discussions are the most sensible way to go to restore those arrangements that we've previously had with the Chinese.
Jennett: Just finally on this, your overtures would indicate that if a meeting were possible – where and when? Do you have any indication there?
Minister for Trade and Tourism: Look, we'd meet anywhere the Chinese were prepared to meet with us. We want to sort these things out. We want a good trading relationship with the Chinese. I mean, the important thing to remember Greg, is that China continues to be our largest trading partner. We almost did $300 billion worth of trade with China last year. So they represent a very big part of our trading relationship but there's some difficulties there and we want to sort those difficulties out.
Jennett: Coal and iron ore do remain strong. Can I take you further afield? We know that the Prime Minister will be attending discussions regarding the situation in Ukraine next week. But around that, there is fear of a worldwide food shortage in large measure because of the Russian blockade of Black Sea ports and grain that is held in them, particularly wheat. Is there a role that you can see Australia playing here? It's not that we have an excess of wheat, but can Australia do more to alleviate suffering, particularly in developing countries, suffering that hasn't emerged but I think the fears are it will?
Minister for Trade and Tourism: One of the good opportunities last week in Geneva was to meet with the Deputy Minister representing the Ukraine at the World Trade Organisation. There were two or three events, all of which I attended to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine in the circumstances that they currently find themselves. We don't seek to take advantage of the circumstance that we now find ourselves in, but we stand ready if we've got wheat available to assist other countries in meeting their demands for wheat.
Jennett: Yes, so it's not a question of stealing their markets but actually filling the breach for customers who might otherwise be left short?
Minister for Trade and Tourism: We're always happy to do that. We stand in solidarity with the people of the Ukraine. Our position matches those of our like-minded allies. We want peace to be restored in the Ukraine and we want the Ukraine to be able to provide what they've always done in the past, which was to help that demand for wheat around the world.
Jennett: Yeah, they are a big food basket. Now you wear many hats, Don Farrell. Special Minister of State back here in Australia when you're not dealing with matters of trade. Now that the election has been run and won, the Senate results declared in each and every State, before too long the 47th Parliament will look back on the election as an exercise. Is there anything that stands out to you as the relevant Minister for the Electoral Commission when it comes to lessons being learnt? Obviously one of the strong criticisms was disenfranchisement, or slow or low enrolment in remote Indigenous communities. Do you want that to be examined?
Minister for Trade and Tourism: Look, I do, Greg. That's one of the things that we will prioritise when the committee, the JSCEM committee gets back together. We've got this paradox Greg, that there was a record number of Australians on the roll this election. There has never been more Australians registered to vote than at the last election - I think it was in excess of 98 per cent. But the paradox is that in Indigenous communities the numbers were at an all-time low.
Jennett: Why is that? Because I think we've heard the Prime Minister ascribe some blame to the previous government; is that the case?
Minister for Trade and Tourism: That is the case. So, in order to engage in some cost-cutting during the last parliament, the Government cut the number of Electoral Commission staff in the Northern Territory and that's had a direct impact on the level of enrolment in Indigenous communities. We intend to correct that but we want to do it in a bipartisan way. We want JSCEM to look at this issue and we believe when you look at this issue there will some glaring anomalies about what happened in this last election.
Jennett: Sure. There is a history of bipartisanship on that committee. Just finally, we do now have a sitting schedule, a calendar that will see Parliament sitting, well, I won't say at regular intervals, but sitting for the rest of this year. What sort of legislation is there going to be when it first comes back, though? It doesn't seem like there's a whole lot worked up just yet.
Minister for Trade and Tourism: Look, we'll be working through it – we've got a month to prepare our legislative agenda. The Prime Minister's made it very clear that he wants Ministers to bring forward legislation. Our priority – we want to do two things. Firstly, we want to govern and govern properly. One of the interesting things in Europe was there was an audible sigh of relief that there's been a change of government in Australia and we've…
Jennett: That's not very diplomatic.
Minister for Trade and Tourism: Well, it may or may be diplomatic…
Jennett: They expressed it nevertheless.
Minister for Trade and Tourism: I think it's an indication, I think, I met with the French Trade Minister and he…
Jennett: There might be an explanation for that audible sigh of relief.
Minister for Trade and Tourism: Yes. I think there's a lot of goodwill towards Australia at the moment on that international scene. We obviously want to govern and govern well. We made a number of promises at the last election. It will be our intention to make sure that those promises get delivered and that we do what we said we’d do for the Australian people.
Jennett: And that will start, as you say, in about a month from now. Don Farrell, thanks so much for joining us on Afternoon Briefing. We'll get you back before too long.
Minister for Trade and Tourism: Thanks, Greg.
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