Interview with Sunday Agenda, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: AUKUS, Red Sea, Hamas-Israel conflict, Trade with China.

Andrew Clennell: So, let's go live now to the Trade Minister, Don Farrell who joins me live from Adelaide. Don Farrell, you're a man who enjoys a nice glass of wine. What do you think of Michaelia Cash getting stuck into the PM over finally having a holiday and doing some wine tasting?

Minister for Trade, Don Farrell: Well, Merry Christmas to you, Andrew, and your viewers. I think it's outrageous. The Prime Minister has worked really, really hard this year. He's taking just a few days off, and he's decided to go to Western Australia to the Margaret River.

I think that's eminently reasonable, and if I was a Western Australian Senator, I certainly wouldn't be complaining about the Prime Minister spending some holidays, well-deserved holidays, in my home state.

Andrew Clennell: Well, let me ask now about the significance of getting this AUKUS legislation through Congress. It wasn't always certain, was it? What impact does this victory have?

Minister for Trade: Oh, look, it's very important. It's especially important in my home State of South Australia, Andrew. This is a key piece of legislation in the United States Congress that's going to allow us to build nuclear submarines in South Australia.

Congratulations to Ambassador Rudd, he's worked very hard on this, and ensured that we've got majority support, Democrat and Republican support in the US Congress, and of course, it's the first step in the construction of those submarines in Australia, and improving our security and peace in our region.

Andrew Clennell: Now you weren't always the biggest fan of Kevin Rudd when he was PM. Are you getting on better with him these days, Don Farrell?

Minister for Trade: We get on like a house on fire. We were recently together in San Francisco, and we both went to the Biden dinner to celebrate APEC, and it was just like old times.

Andrew Clennell: Well, there you go. Except in some respects, I'm sure. Look, this agreement, some people have talked about a threat to Australia's sovereignty from AUKUS. Does this mean we'll have to do more for the US militarily, and in that vein, will we send a ship to the Red Sea as the US Navy has requested?

Minister for Trade: Look, on the first question, Andrew, this is an important part of our future security. Unfortunately, as we've seen in the Middle East in the last few months, and of course in Russia/Ukraine over the previous two years, it's a much more unstable world that we're in.

The US has been a long-time ally of Australia. It gives us the opportunity to continue to build on that strategic relationship. I think it makes us safer in the region by having an ally like the United States and I think it's a very good development.

As far as deployment of Australian ships to the Red Sea, we generally focus our activities in our own region, and as we know, we've got ships in the South China Sea at the moment.

My understanding is that our Defence Minister, Richard Marles, has received the request, and will give it due consideration in the days and the weeks ahead.

Andrew Clennell: But it sounds like from what you're saying, it's quite possible that deployment won't occur.

Minister for Trade: I don't want to pre-empt what the Defence Minister might do. He's a very good and sensible man, a good friend of mine. He'll make the right decision in Australia's interests, as to whether we do or we don't deploy in the Red Sea.

Andrew Clennell: The decision during the week to pen this letter to vote for the UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, is it a bit naive of the Australian Government to ask for an immediate ceasefire given the October 7 attacks and the fact hostages are still being held?

Minister for Trade: There are no easy solutions in the Middle East right now, Andrew. Of course, we saw yesterday the terrible circumstances where Israeli hostages were killed by the Israeli Defence Forces. These are terrible times in the Middle East. What Australia has called for is a humanitarian ceasefire. I don't think that's an unreasonable set of circumstances or an unreasonable thing to call for in the circumstances.

Right from day one, Australia has condemned the murderous assault by Hamas terrorists in the South of Israel. We've continued to support Israel's right to defend itself, but like most countries around the world, we are concerned about the number of civilian deaths in Gaza, as Israel moves further and further into Gaza.

So, it's an extremely difficult set of circumstances. There are no easy solutions here, Andrew, but the government believed that that was a sensible thing to do in the circumstances.

Andrew Clennell: Do you see any danger in Labor being on a different path to Peter Dutton on this issue?

Minister for Trade: The government will make up its own decisions about what is in the best national interests of Australia. We've done that in respect of China. As you know, over the last 18 months, we've tried to stabilise our relationship with China, and of course, that's resulted in now almost $20 billion worth of new trade or resumed trade with China.

We have done things that have been different from what the former Liberal Government did, and from time to time we're going to do that. If we believe it's in our national interest to do that.

Andrew Clennell: I'll get on to the China and trade issue in a minute, but just finally on this issue, the granting of some visas to Palestinians by the Australian Government has been controversial. Do you see that as something the government will do more of, given it's called for this immediate ceasefire, and it's obviously believing there will be a lot more deaths in Gaza?

Minister for Trade: Look, I don't think there's any link between those two things, Andrew. We have issued visas to Palestinians; we have issued visas in the circumstances to Israelis. Where we think as a government it's appropriate to do we'll continue to do it.

Andrew Clennell: So, we've seen during the week once again the lifting of some sanctions from China. It's a bit of a drip approach, this, isn't it, Don Farrell, the lifting of sanctions for three of Australia's largest meat export establishments. How is that all going? We've got eight meat export establishments that remain suspended.

Minister for Trade: Yes, they're very small operations, Andrew, and the issues there were not the issues that affected those three large meat abattoirs. They related to the documentation associated with the exports.

As I said earlier, we started when we came to office with something like $20 billion worth of trade impediments with China. Bit by bit, we've whittled that down, and really the major product now that has not been let back into China is lobster. I've raised this issue now five times with my Chinese counterpart, and I'm hoping that sometime in the near future, that final product will be allowed back in, and that $20 billion worth of trade will be resumed.

We saw during the week that the Chinese Government put out a statement on the amount of barley that's now back into China, over 300,000 tonnes of Australian barley back into the Chinese market.

I was in Western Australia, in Perth, when the first shipment was resumed. The week before that, barley had been selling at $300 a tonne. That shipment, 40,000 tonnes, was selling at $375 a tonne.

I've heard from Viterra, a very big grain exporter in South Australia, similar sorts of results. So, we're very pleased that our attempts to stabilise our relationship with China is resulting in more trade with China.

Andrew Clennell: You told me in Shanghai the wine ban would come off. Where is that at, and just to pick you up on your last answer, you're effectively predicting that next year all sanctions that China has on Australia will come off?

Minister for Trade: Yes. I don't think that's an unreasonable prediction, Andrew. The situation with wine was not dissimilar to barley. We started with a World Trade Organisation dispute, you know, the proper legal way to deal with trade disputes. We were getting towards the end of that dispute. I was very confident that our legal work there would result in the lifting of the bans.

Unfortunately, the way the WTO works is that there would still have been another couple of years of process to go through. We made an offer to the Chinese Government that we would suspend our WTO application if they fast-tracked a review of the 220 per cent tariff on Australian wine into China.

They agreed to do that. That process now is well and truly underway. Wine Australia has done all of the required paperwork to get that review underway, and I would be very confident, Andrew, that in the new year, early in the new year, we will get a favourable result from the Chinese authorities to lift the ban on Australian wine. That will be very important for Australian wine makers. We're coming into the processing season, it'll be great if we can get that wine back into China as soon as possible.

Andrew Clennell: And in other areas of your portfolio, no luck on an EU year trade deal despite your best efforts, you're now turning your attention to a trade deal with the UAE. What practical implications could that have? Any implications around the oil and petrol price?

Minister for Trade: Look, I think the two important aspects of our relationship with the UAE, we don't have a huge amount of trade with the UAE, that represents about $12 billion a year. If we can get a Trade Agreement, then that means all of the products that we sell into UAE come in with no tariffs, so obviously that means more sales, so that figure of $12 billion goes up.

But more importantly, I think, is the opportunity to get investment from the UAE, particularly into the critical minerals sector.

Anthony Albanese wants Australia to be a renewable energy superpower. We're going to need overseas investment to bring that about, and of course, the UAE have got a very large Sovereign Wealth Fund, and when we have Free Trade Agreements with countries, it makes investment from those countries into Australia a lot easier.

And so both of those things, I think the dropping of the tariffs and the investments will be two terrific things that would come out of a Free Trade Agreement.

We're starting negotiations in the third week of January. I'll be in Abu Dhabi at the end of February for a WTO meeting, and I'm hopeful that with a bit of goodwill on both sides we can quickly wrap up a Free Trade Agreement with the United Arab Emirates.

Andrew Clennell: All right, and just finally, the sad death of Peta Murphy. What do you think; do you think the government will have a fight on its hands next year in terms of that Dunkley by‑election?

Minister for Trade: Well, look, as you say, it was very sad for the passing of Peta. I actually worked on her first campaign into Parliament. I worked closely with her in the Parliament, and she was a very fine lady. So it was very sad week, with her funeral on Friday.

Strangely enough, generally speaking in these circumstances, electors understand why they have to go back to the polls. So I'm hopeful that the electors of Dunkley will honour Peta's memory by re-electing another Labor candidate to continue the good work that she was doing in so many areas in the Federal Parliament.

Andrew Clennell: Trade Minister, Don Farrell, thanks so much for your time this morning and during the year. A Merry Christmas to you and your family

Minister for Trade: Same to you Andrew. Thank you.

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