Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC RN Breakfast

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

Patricia Karvelas, host: Don Farrell is the Trade and Tourism Minister. He's my guest this morning. Minister, welcome.

Minister for Trade, Don Farrell: Thank you, Patricia. Nice talking with you.

Patricia Karvelas: It's been reported that you were negotiating a trade and financial deal with Qatar, aviation apparently was part of it. Can you explain that deal?

Minister for Trade: I'm not sure who's saying that Patricia, but that's not correct. At the moment the negotiations that we are doing, or going on in respect of free trade are principally with the Europeans. I've had three, so far unsuccessful meetings with the Europeans, but I had another chat with them last Thursday, and we've agreed for our officials to keep talking and hopefully to have a face-to-face meeting in the next few weeks.

We're also talking with India at the moment. Of course, we signed and processed a free trade agreement with the Indians late last year, which is already delivering lots of benefits for Australian companies. We want to try and extend that agreement. And the third principal free trade agreement that we're negotiating at the moment is the so-called Indo Pacific Economic Framework with the United States. And, again, I hope to be going to San Francisco a bit later in the year to sign the second of four pillars in that free trade agreement. So, they're the principal free trade agreements that we're discussing at the moment, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: No, no – and that makes sense that they're the principal ones. But I'm going to pick you up on that word. Have there been discussions with Qatar on some kind of deal?

Minister for Trade: No.

Patricia Karvelas: At all?

Minister for Trade: None. None at all. No.

Patricia Karvelas: So why, just that's fascinating to me, because the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that you are working on this. This is part of a broader trade agreement with the Emirates State of Qatar currently being negotiated by you. What, why would they be referring to that?

Minister for Trade: I have no idea, Patricia.

Patricia Karvelas: Well, there must be some discussions. Are you saying there have been none on any level, even at a more junior level?

Minister for Trade: There have been no – well, look, I couldn't talk about every single level of Government, but I have had no discussions with Qatar about a free trade agreement. So I think that's just – you know, you'd have to ask the Sydney Morning Herald, but I have had not a single discussion with Qatar about a free trade agreement.

Patricia Karvelas: Is it perhaps the language we're using, free trade agreement means certain things legally, as you know better than I would. So, a discussion about an arrangement with the country?

Minister for Trade: No. Look, I don't want to disappoint you here, Patricia, but –

Patricia Karvelas: I'm not disappointed, I'm about finding out the facts.

Minister for Trade: I'm completely unaware of what that report would be talking about. As you know, our whole trade strategy since we came to government 15 months ago is all about trade diversification. So we've done that with India, a terrific new free trade agreement. We've done that with the United Kingdom. Fingers crossed one of these days I'll be able to come back to Australia, and report that we've got a free trade agreement with the Europeans. We're working more on the United States. And, of course, we've got our Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040, to try and boost our trade with Southeast Asia. And the Prime Minister, of course, is up in Southeast Asia at the moment talking about that.

Patricia Karvelas: Oh, yeah, and I'm going to get to that, absolutely. That's a very key moment.

Minister for Trade: I don't want you to think we're not doing anything. We've got a whole lot of discussions going on, but unfortunately not one of them is with Qatar at the moment.

Patricia Karvelas: Okay, fair enough. But was it your view, did you have conversations with Catherine King while she was making this decision? Were you one of the relevant ministers she spoke to?

Minister for Trade: Look, this, as we know, was a decision by Catherine King. Of course, she consulted with all of the relevant departments –

Patricia Karvelas: Including you?

Minister for Trade: Including tourism.

Patricia Karvelas: And you specifically?

Minister for Trade: Look, I can't say that I specifically had a conversation with her, but I'm aware that her department made it clear that they were, you know, dealing with this issue and going to make a decision about it.

Patricia Karvelas: And did your department give her advice or, you know, their department advice, that you thought it was right to expand the flights?

Minister for Trade: Look, what Catherine did was what any Transport Minister would do – is say, “Look, you know, I've got this decision to make, and I intend to make it.” That's what you'd expect a Transport Minister to decide.

Patricia Karvelas: Oh yes, but did you think there was merit in expanding flights for the tourism industry?

Minister for Trade: We've been pushing the expansion of flights with a whole range of countries at the moment. Of course, the last couple of weeks we've heard that China Southern is flying into Australia. I've been in discussions with VietJet - I launched their first flight from Ho Chi Minh to Brisbane. Of course, now they're flying into Perth as well. And, again, in the last couple of weeks, we were in discussions with China about getting approval for bulk group travel to come to Australia, and we've been successful in that.

In the same way that we're trying to diversify our trading relationship, of course, we're trying to diversify our tourism relationships, and we'll continue to do that.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, there is the Australia-Gulf Cooperation Council, and Australia is in negotiations with them. Qatar is part of that. Is that right?

Minister for Trade: Look, I am not aware that there's been any progress on that particular agreement since – certainly since I've come to office. So –

Patricia Karvelas: Would you like to progress it?

Minister for Trade: Look, our whole strategy has been about getting new trading partners to try and diversify our trading relationships, so that we're not beholden to one particular country and so we can expand our trading relationship. I would be happy if some new life was breathed into that agreement. But the last report I got on that particular agreement was that there had been no discussions.

But, look, if something is happening at a departmental level, Patricia, I'm happy to go back and investigate and see what's going on there. But to the best of my knowledge, nobody has raised either that agreement with me or Qatar in the 15 months I've been in the job.

Patricia Karvelas: Now, Minister, this morning the Prime Minister will meet with the Chinese Premier, Li Qiang. What are you hoping from that meeting?

Minister for Trade: Well, our strategy all along has been to try and stabilise our relationship with China. That's delivered some positive outcomes in the last 15 months. As you know, we started with roughly $20 billion worth of trade impediments when we came into office, we've now whittled that down to about $2.5 billion. But some big, important issues still outstanding. We haven't managed to get wine back into the Chinese market. We haven't managed to get lobster back in. There's a few Australian abattoirs who haven't been able to get their beef back into China. And finally hay, strangely enough, we haven't been able to trade with hay.

So, I can imagine what the Prime Minister will be saying to his Chinese counterpart today is that we want all of those trade impediments removed so that we're back to a free trade arrangement with China. We want to continue to trade with China, but we want to also expand our trading relationship with the other countries I mentioned before but, in particular, with Southeast Asia.

Patricia Karvelas: Let's go to Southeast Asia and that strategy the Government has just unveiled. It seems the primary aim is to move reliance away from China. How quickly can that be done? There are so many recommendations. When will you advance them?

Minister for Trade: Well, we're proposing to advance them as quickly as possible, and that means getting boots on the ground into all of those Southeast Asian countries. I wouldn't agree with your categorisation of the strategy. We want to continue to trade with China. In fact, part of the stabilisation process is making sure that we get back the trade that we lost over the last couple of years, but what we do need to do as a country is diversify that trading relationship so that we're not dependent on one particular country, and Southeast Asia offers us so many opportunities. Whether it's Indonesia, whether it's Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, these are all fast-growing economies. And if I can be honest about it, Patricia, we're not doing enough trade with them, so this whole strategy is designed about sending people up to these countries, building relationships that don't exist at the moment, and then getting companies up there to ensure that they can improve and extend their trading relationship with people or countries in the Southeast Asia region.

Patricia Karvelas: The strategy calls for more flights service between Australia and Southeast Asia. Which airlines are you prepared to offer more slots to?

Minister for Trade: Well, these are matters for the Transport Minister, of course –

Patricia Karvelas: But it's part of the bigger strategy.

Minister for Trade: I mentioned that only a few weeks ago I was in Ho Chi Minh city, and I launched the first flight by VietJet into Brisbane. They've now announced that they're coming into Perth. I did have some discussions about coming into Adelaide. They're just one of a number of airlines. I think India is an interesting one. India now represents our largest group of migrants, one of our largest group of tourists, and our largest group of students. Obviously, there are some opportunities there.

But look, I think it doesn't really matter which country you look at in Southeast Asia, I think there are more opportunities there for more flights, and more tourists. You might have noticed those GDP figures that the Treasurer released yesterday. One of the reasons that our GDP is going up is because we are, in fact getting more tourists back into Australia. So there's lots of opportunities there, and we'll certainly be talking to anybody who wants to come into Australia.

Patricia Karvelas: And do you urge Qatar also to apply again?

Minister for Trade: Look, they're free to do that.

Patricia Karvelas: Would you like them to?

Minister for Trade: Well, it's not up to me, that's up to them to make that decision, but Minister King has announced today her green paper. This gives an opportunity for any country or any business to come forward with suggestions as to how we might build our economic independence. So any country, including Qatar – I mean, the thing about Qatar is that they've got one flight a day, for instance, into Adelaide, but there could be two flights a day into Adelaide. There's no impediment. They could even come into Canberra, Patricia, which they're not doing. So there are opportunities for Qatar to increase their flights and volume of passengers into Australia. They're simply not taking advantage of what they're able to, at the moment.

Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

Minister for Trade: Thanks, Patricia. Nice talking with you.

Media enquiries

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