ABC Radio National with Sarah Dingle

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: China Trade Blockages, Australia-India Trade Agreement (ECTA), Voice to Parliament Referendum.

Sarah Dingle, Host: First Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met the Chinese President. Then Foreign Minister Penny Wong became the first Australian Minister to visit Beijing in three years. And now, the Trade Minister has flagged a possible meeting with his counterpart. And there are high hopes that this will be the moment Australia begins to normalise trade relations with Beijing. Trade Minister Senator Don Farrell joins me now. Welcome back to Breakfast.

Minister for Trade, Senator Don Farrell: Good morning Sarah.

Sarah Dingle: Minister, are you going to Beijing to meet with your Chinese counterpart, Wang Wentao, and if so, when?

Minister for Trade: Sarah, from the first day in this job seven months ago I made it clear that I'd be happy to meet with my Chinese counterpart at any stage and in any place to try and resolve by discussion, rather than disputation, the trade blockages that have so badly affected some sectors of our economy. I'm still ready to do that. The ball is now in the Chinese government's court. As you've said, the Prime Minister met with his Chinese counterpart, the President of China, and of course we saw the visit by Senator Wong last week. But of course, she did say on her return that ice thaws slowly in China. So we've just got to wait and see. The offer is there to meet and we need to get a response now from the Chinese government.

Sarah Dingle: Well, The Australian newspaper is reporting this morning that it could be in February. Is that the case?

Minister for Trade: Look, as I've said, Sarah, I've made it very clear that we are happy to meet at any time, at any place and we'll just see what the response by the Chinese government is to that.

Sarah Dingle: One of the most obvious sticking points in the relationship is Australia's formal complaint in the World Trade Organisation over Chinese tariffs on Australian barley and wine. The WTO is going to deliver its final reports on those two issues in the first half of 2023. Are you going to withdraw those complaints to help our recovering relationship with China?

Minister for Trade: Sarah, no we're not. We've taken those actions as a result of the bans that China placed on a range of our goods, and we intend to proceed with those cases before the world trade organisations. When you have trade disputes that can't be resolved by discussion that's your only alternative to try and resolve them. But of course we would prefer to sit down and discuss the issues with the Chinese government and obviously, if that opportunity arises, then we'll take the opportunity to meet with them and discuss our outstanding issues. For the moment, those cases continue and we're very confident of a successful outcome, particularly in respect of wine and barley.

Sarah Dingle: Sure, but you're keeping this in your back pocket, aren't you? You just said you prefer discussion, not disputation. If those discussions go very well, would you consider just letting this quietly dissipate instead of taking it to its current conclusion?

Minister for Trade: Sarah I'm not sure there's any easy, quiet way to resolve these issues. They're very much the focus of both our government and the Chinese government and, well, amongst others - the media are obviously interested in these issues too. No, we didn't want to take the action in the first place, the previous government had sought to try and resolve the issues. They weren't able to and this is the only way that we can progress these issues.

We have an unusual relationship with China in the sense that they continue to be our largest trading partner this year. By the end of this week, we'll have done close to $300 billion worth of trade with China. That eclipses all of our trade with the United States, with Japan, Korea, France and Britain. Our trade with China is more than all of those countries, but we have a problem with three or four products. They include barley, wine, meat and, of all things, crayfish. We want to resolve those issues. The signs are good, let's be clear about that. The signs are very positive, but we haven't made a breakthrough yet, and time will tell just how we finally resolve these outstanding issues.

Sarah Dingle: If you do resolve those issues, some on the Australian side are wary of resuming previous volumes of exports to China. They're scared of being burned again. If those trade blockages are removed what percentage of our previous trade has diversified into other markets for good?

Minister for Trade: That's a very good question Sarah, it depends upon which products you're talking about. For instance, because of the terrible war between Russia and Ukraine, we've managed to significantly replace the sale of barley to new markets. We've also managed to secure greater contracts for our meat, for instance, into the United States. But wine and crayfish still remain very difficult products to find new markets for. One of the really good things about today is that our new free trade agreement with India begins, and of course, that's a country which has an enormous population and has the potential to be a diversified trading partner for all of those products.

Sarah Dingle: I did want to ask you about that, of course, because it was signed in April, and comes into force today. 2023 is the year that India is set to become the most populous country in the world. How much is this trade deal worth for Australian businesses and the economy?

Minister for Trade: Well it'll be worth a great deal of money and benefit to Australia. As you say, a population of 1.4 billion people, one of the largest economies in the world, currently one of our significant trading partners. We hope that our trade deal with India gives us that opportunity to diversify our trading relationship so that we're not relying on one large economy to sell our products into. We've had a very long standing and positive relationship with India. Of course, the Prime Minister is hoping to go to India early next year, and we want to build upon those good relations to ensure that we have a terrific potential new trading partner of great significance to Australia.

Sarah Dingle: I want to ask you about COVID and the movement of people. The Chinese government has abruptly reduced COVID-19 restrictions, of course, which includes allowing its citizens to travel overseas now. We're hearing of COVID infection rates in China at a scale which is almost unimaginable. Just colossal numbers of people coming down with COVID. As a result, India, Japan, Malaysia, Italy, Taiwan and now the US have all imposed new restrictions on travellers from China. Will Australia do likewise?

Minister for Trade: Look, that's a consideration for other Ministers, Sarah, not for me. I imagine that issue will be a matter for discussion with the Health Minister in due course.

Sarah Dingle: And just finally on another issue. Yesterday, the Prime Minister told the Woodford Folk Festival there will be a referendum by this time next year. What date is the Government considering for that referendum on the Voice to Parliament?

Minister for Trade: You'd have to ask him that, Sarah.

Sarah Dingle: We did invite him on the program. He declined. But in his stead I'm asking you, what date are you thinking about?

Minister for Trade: That's a matter entirely in the gift of the Prime Minister. He'll make a decision in good time about what the relevant date will be. He said it's going to be next year. He's made that very clear, and I'm sure that whatever date that he decides to call the referendum, there will be positive support from the Australian people for that very significant constitutional work change.

Sarah Dingle: Trade Minister Don Farrell. Thank you for your time.

Minister for Trade: Thanks, Sarah.


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