ABC Afternoon briefing with Greg Jennett

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Southeast Asia Economic Strategy, Qatar, EU Free Trade Agreement.

Greg Jennett, host: Well in Penny Wong's absence Don Farrell was the Government's leader in the Senate today. That makes him responsible for a lot of things and he joined us straight after question time as we sought to cover off as many topics around here as we could.

Don Farrell, you've had greatness thrust upon you as acting leader of the Government in the Senate. We've got a bit of ground to cover but it can't escape our attention you're wearing a heart badge not on your sleeve but on your lapel today. What does that tell us?

Minister for Trade, Don Farrell: Well, I went and did a test with Medicines Australia for my heart and of course, I've come through with flying colours, and I can confirm I've actually got a heart.

Greg Jennett: All right, well that's very reassuring I'm sure to the Senate, and the Albanese Government. Why don't we move on, thanks for that update.

You've sat through many questions in the Senate throughout the week about what is essentially a tourism issue at its core, I suppose, the Qatar Airways rejected bid for extra weekly flights.

Now, Penny Wong has indicated publicly today that she spoke to the Qatari Prime Minister about strip search to passengers in Doha. She did that on Monday of this week but ignored the issue of Airways access into this country. Why was that elephant ignored? Why would that be?

Minister for Trade: Oh, Greg, you'd have to ask the Foreign Minister that, but I would have said that it's an indication that this issue is not as big an issue as people like to make out.

Minister King, who's a very good Minister in this Government, had the job of making a decision about an application by Qatar Airlines to expand their flights into Australia and based on national interest considerations - considerations that the former government also used to reject applications by Qatar - not to extend it.

Now having said that, in my home State of South Australia there could be extra Qatar flights tomorrow, and that's the case in a whole lot of airports around Australia, so -

Greg Jennett: Have you encouraged them to do that, the airline?

Minister for Trade: I would be delighted, and I know the Premier of South Australia would be delighted if Qatar increased its number of flights into and out of Adelaide. And of course, from Adelaide you can get to every other part of the country.

Greg Jennett: Sure. Catherine King, since you mentioned her, told Reps question time today, "My Department undertook consultation with relevant aviation stakeholders, and I was well aware of different stakeholders' views when I made the decision". Did that include the views of the tourism sector and were those views conveyed by you as Minister?

Minister for Trade: Look, I'll leave it to Minister King to say who she consulted with. But look, these decisions are not easy. There's a whole lot of considerations that you need to take into account, and can I reiterate that when Minister McCormack had this job, he had to reject applications by Qatar. Only yesterday he talked about the issue of potential undercutting of jobs in Australia in our other airlines.

Greg Jennett: So is that the primary consideration? When we use this catch‑all phrase "the national interest", is it jobs, is it the profitability of Qantas, is it further unfettered access by a fully owned Middle Eastern government airline? What is it?

Minister for Trade: The national interest is exactly what it is. It's taking into account all of the things, the pluses and the minuses, that might affect giving additional access to this particular company.

Now in recent weeks, I've had the pleasure of launching VietJet's flight from Ho Chi Minh to Brisbane. I notice today for $32 you can fly from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh.

Greg Jennett: Not bad.

Minister for Trade: No, it's not bad. And of course not only are they now flying into Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, they're just about to start a service into Perth, and I'm hoping they're pretty soon going to come into Adelaide.

Greg Jennett: Okay.

Minister for Trade: I recently, in consultation with my Chinese colleagues, got the ban lifted on group travel by Chinese tourists. Of course, they're one of our biggest potential groups of tourists. Singapore Airlines is also announcing some extra flights.

Greg Jennett: Yeah.

Minister for Trade: I know there's also some discussions with the Japanese airlines about increasing those number of flights. So it's not that we're not pursuing additional flights. We're getting back to almost pre‑COVID levels.

Greg Jennett: Sure.

Minister for Trade: We're not quite there yet but my guess is by the end of the year we'll be back to about 94 per cent pre‑COVID.

Greg Jennett: Now as you say it is a competitive market. I guess we're waiting for that to have an effect on airfares. But to ALP President Wayne Swan's call for review, is that necessary?

Minister for Trade: Look, the Government's made its decision. Minister King's been very clear about the decision that's been made. We will continue to try and put downward pressure on prices, and I've just listed a number of things that I've sort of been doing in my space to try and encourage visitor numbers to increase.

Greg Jennett: Is it enough though? I mean you must be receiving, I assume you are receiving representations from the tourism industry, if not over Qatar then more broadly, about airfares, is that correct? Are they making representations over Qatar as well?

Minister for Trade: I get lots of representations and different organisations say different things. But my job has been, as Tourism Minister for the last 15 months, to increase the variety of airlines that are coming into Australia, and that's what I think I'm doing.

Greg Jennett: Yeah.

Minister for Trade: You know, we overwhelmingly accept new applicants. On the case of Qatar, we didn't accept that. But as I say, Qatar can fly as many flights as they like right now into Adelaide, into Avalon, into the Gold Coast, into Broome.

Greg Jennett: Into those second-tier airports. Look if we get the opportunity ‑‑

Minister for Trade: Well, with due respect ‑‑

Greg Jennett: Okay, Adelaide's not second tier.

Minister for Trade: With due respect, I've got to defend South Australia's interests here.

Greg Jennett: Yeah.

Minister for Trade: It is not a second-tier airport. It's a beautiful ‑ it's just been upgraded by the way, the international airport in Adelaide, it's just been upgraded. It's a beautiful airport.

Greg Jennett: All right, noted.

Minister for Trade: Good on you.

Greg Jennett: Okay. Let's move on to some trade matters, Don Farrell, because the Prime Minister's been in Jakarta today on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit outlining this 2040 Southeast Asian economic strategy, the premise of which seems to be that we are not operating at optimal levels. There'd be lots of reasons for that historically, including I think the shaky nature of some of the democracies in the region over the years.

One proposal identified is a "political risk insurance approach", what is it and what is government's role in underwriting that?

Minister for Trade: Well it's a recommendation to look at something along those lines. As you say, from time to time there has been some instability in those Southeast Asian countries, and of course, that adds to the risk of Australian businesses going into those economies.

I guess our principal aim in this 2040 strategy is to ensure that we are diversifying the countries to which we trade, and let's be honest ‑‑

Greg Jennett: Away from China obviously?

Minister for Trade: Diversifying into a whole range of countries. I want to make it clear that my policy is not to decrease the amount of trade into China. The policy is to expand the countries to which we trade. We don't want to trade less into China. As you know I'm trying to get wine, lobster, hay, and beef back into the Chinese market. But we know the problems of having all of your eggs in one basket, and so our aim is to ensure that we've got a diversified group of trading partners. And these countries are so close --

Greg Jennett: Sure.

Minister for Trade: Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam. They're all really close and we're just not doing enough to sell our products into those countries.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, no, it's definitely underdone and there's much we could talk about here at great length. I think there are 208 pages, 75 recommendations.

Minister for Trade: Yeah.

Greg Jennett: But among them is I think a suggestion that some of the FTAs, some of the free trade agreements with these very countries you just listed there, Don, might need to be revisited. Is that a priority? Do you want to re-open a number of those?

Minister for Trade: Look, my immediate priority at the moment is to try and get a free trade agreement with the Europeans and I'm hoping ‑ I had a discussion last week with my counterpart, and we hope to meet face-to-face soon. That's our immediate priority.

Of course, we've got an update of our Indian agreement and that's also important. But in all of those things if there's an opportunity to beef up our free trade agreement with the ASEAN region of course we'll do that.

But look, there are lots of opportunities within our existing free trade agreements that we're simply not taking advantage of. The idea here is to send out emissaries from Australia, look at opportunities and get Australian companies to invest.

Greg Jennett: Yes.

Minister for Trade: Part of my objective as Trade Minister is to get the framework, the legal framework for getting into these economies, then the companies to take the risk, to hop on a plane, go to these countries and try and sell, whether it's our food or our mining products. We've got a wonderful offer in Australia.

Greg Jennett: Sure.

Minister for Trade: I've got to convince Australian businesses to get out there and get into these markets because what we know, is that trade is good for jobs, it's good for prosperity in this country, and if you have a look at some of those figures that came out in the last 24 hours, trade ‑‑

Greg Jennett: Yeah, they're solid.

Minister for Trade: ‑‑ has been a very, very important part of our GDP.

Greg Jennett: All right, well I'm glad you're in really good health because you've got plenty in front of you still. Don Farrell, thanks for joining us once again.

Minister for Trade: Great talking with you.

Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: 02 6277 7420
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555