TV interview, ABC Afternoon Briefing with Greg Jennett

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Trade with China, sentencing of Dr Yang Hengjun, AU-EU free trade agreement, trade agreement with the UAE.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Greg Jennett, host: The Trade Minister Don Farrell and his offsider Tim Ayres have spent the week in high level talks overseas. They're among counterparts from across the globe charting the direction of the World Trade Organisation. Now, while that's such a huge gathering of trade ministers, they've held a bunch of one-on-one talks, significantly Don Farrell's had a meeting with the Chinese Commerce Minister.

For an update on that, Don Farrell joined us from the United Arab Emirates a few moments ago. Don Farrell, it's good to have you join us from afar. You've just attended World Trade Organisation talks in Abu Dhabi, and on the sidelines held yet another meeting with your Chinese counterpart, Commerce Minister Wang Wentao. The Chinese government, of course, is at a critical point in its review of wine import barriers. Did you get an explicit assurance from Minister Wang that they will complete that review in one month – that is, by the end of March?

Minister for Trade: Good to talk with you, Greg. And, yes, the discussions with the Chinese were all about the process which we set up four months ago to remove the unfair tariffs on Australian wine exports into China.

You might recall that in exchange for us suspending our World Trade Organisation dispute over wine, we agreed for a fast-tracked Chinese review process, and in my discussions with Wang Wentao yesterday – it was my sixth meeting with him over the last 18 months – he made it clear that their processes were on track, and we would get a result by the end of March.

Greg Jennett: Okay. Well, that sounds like a pretty clear undertaking, which would then render, erroneous, would it, reports in organs like the Global Times that suggested it would be or could be a 12-month process beginning last November and obviously not ending until November of this year. But you're satisfied that is incorrect?

Minister for Trade: Look, the Chinese Trade Minister was very clear. We set a process – I might add, it was the same process that we used for the lifting of the bans over barley - that process, as you know, after a period of months resulted in the lifting of those bans. And, of course, now Australian barley exporters are getting their products back into China.

I'm very confident that the discussions I had yesterday with Wang Wentao will result in them carrying through on what they undertook to do, which was to expedite the review of the tariffs, and that we'll get a result on that in a few weeks' time.

Greg Jennett: I'm sure you're very well aware that the pressure and pain being felt by bulk winemakers in particular in South Australia, and in the New South Wales Riverina is very acute right now. Did you reiterate to the minister that you would have no hesitation in going back to the WTO if this wasn't resolved to Australia's satisfaction at the end of March?

Minister for Trade: It's not just bulk wine producers, Greg, the loss of that largest trade market affected winemakers right around the country, including in my own town of the Clare Valley. I've seen, very tragically, local winemakers simply leave their grapes on the vines. So it's right across the country that winemakers are being affected by these bans and limitations.

We have made it very clear that we want those bans lifted. We want them lifted in the time frame that we have discussed. If we don't get them lifted, then we will resume our World Trade Organisation dispute. But, look, I don't want to do that. All the way along the line here, Greg, I've tried to sort out these trade issues by consultation rather than disputation. That's what I want to do on this occasion. And, again, I'm hopeful that with goodwill on both sides, we can now resolve this issue and move on.

Greg Jennett: Yeah, I sense that optimism, and at least the process is tracking to time, Don Farrell.

On Yang Hengjun, you also, I believe, raised the fate of this Australian citizen writer who, of course, has been handed a death sentence, likely to be commuted to life on espionage charges. Did you seek what Dr Yang's supporters call medical parole, which I take to be the serving out of that sentence here in Australia? Did you put that to the Chinese delegation?

Minister for Trade: Greg, I raised the issue of Dr Hengjun. We made it very clear that we disprove of the decision that the Chinese authorities made in respect of Dr Hengjun. We want him released and returned to Australia. As you know, we had the case of Cheng Lei - we pushed and persisted with issues relating to her release. That was successful, and we will continue to push on every occasion that we meet our Chinese counterparts for his release and his return to Australia.

Greg Jennett: And what, broadly, was the reply from Minister Wang?

Minister for Trade: Look, they obviously have their own internal judicial system. But my job is to push the case for Australian citizens. I did that, and I'll continue to do that every time I meet with them.

Greg Jennett: All right, let me steer it back to trade. I understand you've also had a discussion there with the European Union, your first as I understand it – correct me if I'm wrong, Don – since the collapse of FTA talks with Europe. Why did you even hold this discussion if that deal is so forlorn now?

Minister for Trade: You know me, Greg – I'm an eternal optimist.

Greg Jennett: Yes.

Minister for Trade: I haven't given up on a free trade agreement with the Europeans. But, look, I think if I'm honest about it, the reality is that the Europeans are about to go into their electoral cycle early in June. They'll be voting on new members of parliament for the European Parliament. I don't honestly think that we're going to make any progress between now and then. But when that process is out of the way, and depending on who will be the person representing the European Union in negotiations, I'm very happy to either go back to Europe or have the Europeans come to Australia to continue those negotiations.

The reality is, though, if all we get is the same offer that we've had now on two previous occasions, we won't get an agreement. I can't say it often enough to the Europeans – we need a better offer on agriculture. And in the absence of a better offer on agriculture, we're not going to reach agreement.

Now, that doesn't mean that we've given up on free trade agreements. Earlier in the week I met with my UAE counterpart. I'm very optimistic that in a very short space of time, we will get a brand new free trade agreement with the United Arab Emirates. And that's going to be important for our relations in the Middle East.

Greg Jennett: I'm sure it would be. I see on that that your team has said this is not your traditional trade deal that's being negotiated with UAE. They've also signalled an interest right upfront in green energy investment in this country. Does that include nuclear power? Did they raise that in discussions, since they've adopted it rather enthusiastically?

Minister for Trade: No, there was no discussion about nuclear power. As you're aware, Greg, Australia wants to become a renewable energy superpower. Our discussions with the United Arab Emirates are about two-way trade and two-way investment in our renewable energy sector. That means critical minerals. That means rare earths. That means solar and hydrogen. The UAE have massive sovereign wealth funds. We need investment in our mines to extract the mines, to process the minerals, to export the minerals. So we are looking for additional partners in that process and of course, a free trade agreement with another nation facilitates that process.

So we're looking forward to very quickly reaching agreement. It will have the typical things that you'd expect in a free trade agreement like lower tariffs for our agricultural and meat and livestock products. That will all be part of that agreement, but in addition to that, we want to make significant progress on getting two-way investment into that renewable space.

Greg Jennett: All right. Well, we might track progress on that with you when you return to Australia and leave for another day a few domestic issues which I'd love to traverse with you but, alas, time won't permit that to happen today, Don Farrell. We'll thank you and say farewell from Abu Dhabi. Talk again soon.

Minister for Trade: Thanks, Greg.

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