Interview with Hamish Macdonald, ABC RN

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: EU Free Trade Agreement, China trade, Senator Thorpe, gas exports

Hamish Macdonald, host: This is RN Breakfast. A free trade agreement with Europe would give Australian exporters better access to a trillion-dollar market, much needed in the years since the trade relationship with China has deteriorated.

Australia is an enthusiastic proponent of free trade, having just secured an FTA with the UK and currently negotiating several agreements with some of the world's largest economies. But after years of painstaking negotiations for an agreement with the European Union, it appears that may now be in jeopardy.

Trade Minister Don Farrell has just returned from those negotiations. He's with me this morning. Welcome back to the program.

Minister for Trade, Don Farrell: Good morning, Hamish.

Hamish Macdonald: Is this deal about to fall over?

Minister for Trade: Look, it's been a tough set of negotiations with the Europeans. What you have to remember Hamish, is that the Europeans did break off negotiations when the former Morrison Government cancelled the contract with the Naval Group to build submarines in South Australia. We've managed to get those negotiations back on track, but I can't say that they've been easy.

The Europeans are negotiating very hard about some of the issues that they're concerned about. But we are presenting an equally strong case and I'm confident that with a bit of goodwill on both sides we can get the negotiations back on track and resolve the outstanding issues.

We've actually made quite a bit of progress on most of the issues but the key issue for Australia of course is good access for our agricultural products into the European market.

As you've just mentioned, this is an economy worth trillions of dollars, but more importantly 450 million consumers. We want to give them the opportunity to buy our wonderful food and wine.

Hamish Macdonald: Sure, I do want to get into the specifics of that but on the question of goodwill, I know you left the talks saying Australia's not short of a dance partner. We spoke to the Agriculture Minister Murray Watt about this last week. He said Australia is willing to walk away. Are we demonstrating goodwill in this?

Minister for Trade: Oh look, we certainly are. The fact that I was in Europe for two days last week negotiating with the Europeans I think is a very good sign of goodwill. We've managed to get the negotiations back on track, our officials are again meeting face-to-face over the next few weeks, and I've indicated I'm prepared to go back to Europe to have further discussions.

So yes, we are demonstrating goodwill, but it takes two to tango, and the Europeans have to show that they're prepared to give our agriculture industry greater access to that European market.

Hamish Macdonald: So specifically what does that mean? What is it that you want our agriculture sector to have access to? What are the products we're talking about? What are the region sticking points in Europe on that?

Minister for Trade: We're talking about things like beef, like sheep meat, like sugar. A range of agricultural products which Australia produces, wonderful food and wine. We want the opportunity to sell our products into that huge European market.

Hamish Macdonald: And why won't they let you?

Minister for Trade: Well, they've got their own concerns about protecting their own agriculture industry. They've got a range of particularly difficult issues at the moment, not least of which is the terrible war between Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine hasn't been able to get access to the Black Sea to get its products out to market, and so they're coming into Europe, and that's having an effect on the European farmers. So, there's a range of particular issues that exist at the moment.

We view this as a very long-term arrangement, so we say that this is our opportunity, Australia's opportunity to get our products into that European market and we're going to persist with the negotiations.

Hamish Macdonald: This obviously is important in the context of our soured trade relationship with China. The Chinese reportedly growing frustrated that Prime Minister Anthony Albanese hasn't locked in a date to visit Beijing. The Opposition says he shouldn't go until the rest of the trade restrictions are dropped. Is that the reason for the delay? Why won't he lock in a date at this point?

Minister for Trade: Oh look, you'd have to ask the Prime Minister. He's got a very, very busy schedule, not least going to Europe next month for the NATO discussions.

Hamish Macdonald: Is dropping those trade restrictions a prerequisite for him visiting in your view?

Minister for Trade: I've now met with my Chinese counterpart three times in the last couple of months, and again last week I met with the Deputy Trade Minister for China. We continue to make progress in removing the impediments that have been affecting Australia's food produce into China. We're going down that track. As we know, in the last couple of weeks the Chinese have lifted the ban on Australian timber products, and last week they lifted the ban on citrus and stone fruit from Australia. And we're expecting in the next couple of weeks a favourable decision on the tariff that has prevented Australian barley going into China. So bit by bit ‑‑

Hamish Macdonald: What gives you ‑‑

Minister for Trade: ‑‑ we're resolving all of these issues ‑ sorry?

Hamish Macdonald: What gives you the impression there is good news imminent on that?

Minister for Trade: Oh look, we, as you know, we decided to suspend our World Trade Organization dispute over barley in return for a review by the Chinese Government on the 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley. They said that process would take a couple of months. We're coming to the end of that time and, well, call me an optimist Hamish, but I'm hopeful that at the end of that process, we'll see that that 80 per cent ban or that 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley into China will be lifted.

Hamish Macdonald: On the question of gas exports, yesterday the Government announced it's finalised the new gas Code of Conduct. It's designed to encourage new gas supply to stay in the domestic market rather than being exported, it creates price incentives for that. You obviously deal with Japan and South Korea, big consumers of our gas. How much opposition are you hearing from them to these sorts of measures?

Minister for Trade: There's no doubt that the Koreans and the Japanese have both raised issues about decisions that we're making, but I have to say this Hamish, the job of the Australian Government is to ensure that we have a reliable supply of electricity into the Australian market. So that's our first priority.

But it's fair to say that there hasn't been one kilojoule of gas, for instance, that has been contracted by Australia that hasn't been supplied to either Japan or Korea. We've honoured all of our contracts and we will continue to honour all of our contracts into the future.

So I don't believe the Japanese or the Korean markets have got anything to be concerned about regarding decisions that the Australian Government is making to sensibly continue to provide a reliable source of energy for Australian consumers.

Hamish Macdonald: I'm talking to the Trade Minister Don Farrell. You're a senior figure in the Senate on the Government side, obviously, everyone listening will have heard the news this morning that Lidia Thorpe has withdrawn claims that a Senator sexually assaulted her that were made yesterday in the Senate. What do you make as a Senator of what has been unfolding in the Senate this week?

Minister for Trade: Oh look, it would always be better that these things weren't being raised in the Senate. But look, we've spoken with Lidia, we've offered her a support for anything she might need assistance with. I understand she's going to be making a further statement to Parliament today and I'll await the outcome of what she has to say.

Hamish Macdonald: It was only a few days ago though that the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins was telling us on this program that she believes the culture in Parliament House has changed. Is it fair to Australians watching all of this unfold in Parliament to observe that maybe it has not?

Minister for Trade: Look I think Kate Jenkins has correctly analysed the situation in the Parliament. She's put a lot of effort into changing the culture in the Parliament. There's been a range of new arrangements that I think improve the standards in the Parliament, and I'm hopeful that that's going to continue to be the case.

The events that I think Senator Thorpe was talking about predate the changes that have been implemented in the last 12 months by the Albanese Government.

Hamish Macdonald: But do you think the Australian Government, though, watching everything that's happened in the Senate this week, whether it's in relation to this matter or others, would believe that actually, the culture has changed?

Minister for Trade: Well, I'm in there and I believe it's changed, and I hope the Australian people believe it's changed.

Hamish Macdonald: Trade Minister Don Farrell, thank you very much.

Minister for Trade: Thanks Hamish.

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