ABC Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Trade with China, suspensions on Australian beef lifted, critical minerals partnership with the EU, Electoral reform, Direction 99.

Greg Jennett, host: Chinese authorities relented overnight on one of the last significant blockages in trade ties with Australia. Five beef exporters will soon be able to send meat into China, leaving another two to still have their products cleared. We spoke about this and other issues, of course, including migration, with Trade Minister Don Farrell.

Don Farrell, we always enjoy having you on the program. Welcome back once again in a week of estimates hearings. It's good that you can take a break and talk to us instead - we'll ask the questions. Almost every weapon of economic coercion that China has deployed against Australia has now been put back in the locker by them, with the five beef meat works now being cleared to begin exports. Are you calling this virtually the end of the era of trade disputes with that country?

Minister for Trade, Don Farrell: Greg, we're not quite there yet. We still have the issue of lobsters to resolve, but I'm confident that given the direction of the removal of all of the impediments, that we're heading in the right direction with lobster. Remember this, two years ago, we started with $20 billion worth of trade impediments, now that's below $1 billion. In the last month, we sold more wine to China than we'd sold in the previous three years. So, things really are heading in the right direction, and I'm confident that we're going to be able to put all of those issues behind us and turn a new leaf.

Greg Jennett: And what specifically gives you confidence about progress on lobsters? Is it the imminent arrival within weeks of Premier Li Qiang to address, to hold meetings here?

Minister for Trade: Look, obviously that's a very positive step and we're very much looking forward to the Chinese Premier coming to Australia. He will be bringing the Trade Minister, and, of course, that's a very positive sign. I've now met with my equivalent seven times, and all of the indications I get from him is that, like us, they want to put these issues behind us.

Greg Jennett: Ok. And would you anticipate that that will be linked to the visit?

Minister for Trade:I don't say it's linked, but we've made it very clear, in every meeting I've had with my Chinese counterpart, I've raised these issues. Bit by bit we've managed to resolve all of them, and I believe we're going to resolve that one.

Greg Jennett: Ok. And the two outstanding beef abattoirs that haven't yet got their approvals – five did, two didn't. What are your expectations on that?

Minister for Trade: Again, those will be resolved. They were different issues. They were biosecurity issues and need to be resolved in a different way with the equivalent of the Chinese Agricultural Department. But they will be resolved, I'm sure, along with the lobster issue.

Greg Jennett: All right. I saw that there was an MoU signed this week by you on critical minerals with the European Union. No doubt that indicates Europe's hunger for these resources that Australia has. So, I wonder why you didn't wind that hunger into your so far fruitless discussions on an EU trade deal. Why didn't you make that a bargaining chip?

Minister for Trade: Look, we certainly raised it in the context of the negotiations last year, but as you know, we didn't get a good enough offer on agriculture to proceed with that agreement. Just to put that into perspective, the total value of what the Europeans were offering us last year for meat and sheep meat was $1 billion. We've now resolved almost $20 billion worth of trade impediments in that same period.

Greg Jennett: So, that actually takes the impetus out of you attempting to restart, does it? Any negotiations?

Minister for Trade: I've made the offer as recently as Monday of this week when I met with my European counterpart. We're happy to start negotiations or restart negotiations at any time, but they have to understand we're not going to sign just any deal. It has to be a deal that's in our national interest. We were able to make some progress on critical minerals. I was a little surprised at that, I have to say. The Europeans understand that they need some diversity of markets and we provided that to them.

Greg Jennett: All right, let's see if they reciprocate, then. I wonder if the trail has gone cold from their side as well on the trade deal. But we'll leave that one with you, Don Farrell. New Zealand - since the government's decision yesterday to rewrite its controversial ministerial direction on the deportation of foreign criminals - you might be aware that that country's Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, has taken umbrage. You famously told the Senate, in the whole history of time, I would have said our closest international ally is New Zealand. That was you, Don Farrell. Do you think this is going to imperil Trans-Tasman friendships by the government going down this path?

Minister for Trade: Look, I don't think so, Greg. Australia and New Zealand are family. Obviously, from time to time we'll have differences of opinion on policy. I'm going to New Zealand in a couple of months’ time to meet my new New Zealand counterpart. In fact, I'll be meeting him next week in Singapore, where we're signing a couple of new agreements with the United States.

Greg Jennett: They say they want to engage with Australia politically on what we're calling Direction 99 here in this country. What will you say if your counterpart seeks an explanation?

Minister for Trade: I'll say what the Prime Minister, I'm sure, has said, what the Foreign Minister has said, that these are issues which are difficult for the Australian Government to deal with. We're working through them, but we have to, as we always do, make our decisions based on our national interest and we've made our decision here.

Greg Jennett: It's more than that, though, isn't it? It is effectively reneging on an undertaking given to Jacinda Ardern and subsequently to Christopher Hipkins.

Minister for Trade: Look, I think we have to make decisions based on what are issues in our national interest. I met with the New Zealand Ambassador this morning again. We talked about the positive things in our relationship into the future. And of course, as I said, that means the meeting that I'm going to have with the Trade Minister both next week and in New Zealand in a couple of months’ time.

Greg Jennett: All right, you've just introduced a bit of information about which I was unaware, that you met the High Commissioner. Have to ask, was it raised with you?

Minister for Trade: Look, we transversed a whole lot of issues and of course, in these discussions, both sides get the opportunity to raise issues. They can raise any issue that they like and of course, we raise issues that are of interest to us. I don't make a habit of recounting discussions I have with the ambassadors.

Greg Jennett: I understand that sensitivity, but I think you've got a little bit of latitude here because Winston Peters himself has issued a public statement saying we want to engage on this. So, it's a small step to then confirm that it was traversed by you.

Minister for Trade: My interest is in trade. We have many other Ministers who handle the other issues that you're talking about. I focus my attention on trade issues and we're very much moving in the right direction with New Zealand on those trade issues.

Greg Jennett: All right. And I know you're very popular with them on account of some of those quotes I read one out earlier Don Farrell. Let's move on to another area of responsibility for you as Special Minister of State. I think I always ask you when you come on where you're up to with electoral reform negotiations. I think you're still working on that. So, I'm just going to ask about one small but important element of it today. Are you open to or are you negotiating a modified version of an enlarged Senate that is not adding four seats, two extra for both territories, but adding one extra for each territory?

Minister for Trade: Look, the issue of increased representation for the territories is the subject of discussion. I can't say that any agreement has been reached at this point and I have indicated all the way along in these negotiations that I'd like to get an agreed outcome, not a disputed outcome. I think Australian politics works best when the political parties can work out an agreement for the future. The committee that looked at this issue recommended having looked at the issue of additional representation from the territories. I think there's an argument for it, but it's still the subject of discussion.

Greg Jennett: I understand, but the number recommended by them for each territory, you're not especially wedded to it. You're open to the alternative of three.

Minister for Trade: Yeah. Look, I'm happy to discuss with the other parties what might be a way of giving greater representation to the territories, but I have to say at this stage there's still opposition to that, and I do want to try and get a consensus reform to our electoral laws before the next election.

Greg Jennett: I know you've been working at it for some time and that means we'll keep coming back to it with you when you -

Minister for Trade: One day. There'll be a result.

Greg Jennett: I hope so. Don Farrell, thanks again.

Minister for Trade: Ok, thanks very much, Greg.

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