Interview on 2GB, Afternoons, with Deborah Knight

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Possibility of trade deals with the UK and the EU. Australia-China trade relationship; Australia COVID-19 impacted tourism.
18 June 2020

Deborah Knight: Do we really have boomerangs coming from the UK? Well, we’ve got on the line Trade and Tourism Minister Simon Birmingham. He joins us now. Minister, thanks for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: G’day, Deb. Great to be with you.

Deborah Knight: Is that right? Do we import boomerangs from the UK?

Simon Birmingham: I’ve got to say, when I heard those comments from Prime Minister Johnson, it caused a little bit of scurrying in my office-

Deborah Knight: I bet.

Simon Birmingham: But, as I understand it, there is a toy called a boomerang that comes from the UK to Australia. So, in no way are they making indigenous artefacts that they’re trying to pass off to us as being boomerangs in what we would all think. Might need to-

Deborah Knight: Well, that is good news.

Simon Birmingham: Might need to duck down to the local toy shop over the weekend and check whether I can source one.

Deborah Knight: And I also had to look up, on the internet, after he talked about these penguins, when he was talk- comparing Tim Tams. Obviously, the UK, they’re only human. They want to get their hands on our Tim Tams for a decent price, if they get a good free trade deal. But he was suggesting that we would want their penguins — a Penguin biscuit? Have you ever tried one of these?

Simon Birmingham: No, I've got to say that I had never heard of a Penguin before, so this is obviously a great big opportunity for the UK, if none of us have heard of them. But Tim Tams, sweet biscuits from Australia, do face an eight per cent tariff, an eight per cent tax when they hit the stores in the United Kingdom. And so getting rid of those sorts of taxes is type of thing we're looking to do here, which can make it easier for farmers and food producers to send goods and make sure that it’s cheaper for consumers in the process.

Deborah Knight: And, obviously, it'll — long term if it comes to fruition — help create jobs, Aussie jobs, and help Aussies who might want to live and work in the UK too.

Simon Birmingham: Well, that's a serious side of it all that, you know, this is about jobs. One in five Australian jobs is dependent on trade, and as a government, as we've done these sorts of trade deals progressively with many countries now, what we've managed to achieve is an environment where routinely, Australia now exports more than we import as a country. In fact, the last 28 months in a row, we've recorded a trade surplus, and that's a great credit to our businesses and our exporters. And with the UK, a market of 70- 67 million people, we're wanting to make sure that we provide new opportunities for our farmers, be they sheep graziers or grain growers, winemakers or horticulturalists, to get their produce over there. But also for businesses from the healthcare industry, financial services, and emerging start up sectors like fintech, all have a big chance to really grow the trade and create more jobs.

Deborah Knight: And is there a chance that we could have an easier system, an easier visa system, for Australians to live and work in the UK? Because that's a big part, not just for younger Australians but also for the entire work regime — a lot of businesses wanting better access to the labour market.

Simon Birmingham: It’s an important part of the relationship, and we already have, you know, really strong mobility flow between the UK and Australia. And it's a rite of passage for many Australians to go and live and work in the UK and many Brits to do likewise. And the trade agreement, it’s a trade deal. It's not an open-borders arrangement. But it does give us a chance to have a look at how we mutually recognise, you know, skilled professionals and qualifications and where we can try to make it a bit easier for people to work in the UK and create those opportunities to, again, broaden the career and job opportunities for Australians.

Deborah Knight: And what about a trade deal with the EU? Because, obviously, in the wake of what's going on with China, we don't want to put all of our trade eggs in that Chinese basket. We want to broaden it out to as many countries as we possibly can. Is there a chance of a trade deal being done now with the EU?

Simon Birmingham: Absolutely. In fact, those negotiations are already underway and have been progressing for a little while now. And we're making good progress there with the 27 remaining nations of the European Union. You know, again, an even bigger market — more than 400 million consumers. They're a significant trading partner for us already, but with very big barriers to trade, particularly in some of those agricultural areas that we want to knock some of those barriers out, so that we can grow that trading relationship into the future as well.

Deborah Knight: Now, just on China — have you managed to get through yet to your counterpart in Beijing, or is he still giving you the cold shoulder?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, the Chinese system knows that we are eager to have a conversation. We are happy to have it and to work through difficult issues…

Deborah Knight: So they’re still not talking your call?

Simon Birmingham: But the ball sits in their court.

Deborah Knight: So, they're still not answering your calls, your requests? Still the cold shoulder?

Simon Birmingham: They still haven't scheduled a call. In the end, we think the best way to work through difficult issues is to talk about them. The Australian Government is willing to have those conversations. We won't compromise Australian values. We won’t move in terms of policies that are in the Australian national interest but we value the partnership we have with China and with many other countries of the region. And where we have disagreements, we reckon the best way to sort them out is to have that dialogue, but it does take two to agree to do so.

Deborah Knight: Takes two to tango, it sure does. What about these suggestions from your colleague, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, saying that we should slap tariffs on Chinese imports? Good idea or not?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don't think that's a particularly helpful idea. In the end, what we don't want to do is to create some sort of ongoing trade war and get into tit for tat things. We have a trade agreement with China that has yielded benefits for Australia. It’s yielded benefits for China as well. In the end, we have a significant trade surplus with China in what we send from Australia to Chinese consumers. And we want to make sure we continue to have a relationship that looks to the more positive areas where it is mutually beneficial, doesn't compromise on the things that we need to do to maintain our sovereignty and our respect. But I don't think that kicking off or escalating a trade war is going to be in anybody's interest.

Deborah Knight: Now, you've said that the borders, the Australian borders for international travellers, may stay closed into next year. What could be the decider here? What could be the change that might happen that might bring that forward?

Simon Birmingham: Well, if we saw some wonderful breakthrough in terms of the vaccine or the like, then… or something else that enables much more confidence around how you could manage the spread of CDOVID, then that would be a fantastic opportunity for us to move in terms of borders at that time [indistinct]-

Deborah Knight: Will you provide more help to the tourism sector that relies on international tourists? Because that's a big blow for them to cop into next year.

Simon Birmingham: Look, it is tough and my heart goes out to so many of those tourism businesses who are built around international visitation. But ultimately, these tough, strong border protection measures and restrictions around international guests coming into Australia has been a core part of our success in suppressing the spread of COVID. Just yesterday, the world recorded the highest number of new cases right around the globe. And yet here in Australia, very few numbers because of these successful protection measures we've put in place. So we can't trade that away because we don't want to see a circumstance where we have an outbreak, we’ve got to shut down parts of our economy again, or where we get into those terrible situations that we saw in Europe, the overflowing hospitals, or in the US with mass graves.

So, now what we need to do is get state borders open, get state economies open, so that Australians can support our tourism industry. We as Australians are big travellers. In fact, we spent $20 billion more as Australians travelling overseas last year than international visitors to Australia spent here. So if we can just generate enough activity amongst Australians travelling around this great country of ours, then we can absolutely help offset the impact on our tourism industry.

Deborah Knight: I know you're a proud South Australian. There was the tit for tat between Victoria and South Australia yesterday. Dan Andrews having a swipe saying: why would you bother going to South Australia? What's the best thing about your state?

Simon Birmingham: Well, look, the best thing is the wine industry, amazing experiences that can be had to relax in some beautiful vineyards over an amazing meal, but there are plenty of experiences people can have. And Dan Andrews, he's dealing with a lot of shark tanks in the Victorian Labor Party at present and we could invite him over to South Australia to go diving with the sharks at Port Lincoln and he’d probably find they’re friendlier than some of his colleagues back home.

Deborah Knight: Yeah. He might need that reprieve from what he's copping in his own state, that is for sure. Minister, we thank you for your time.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so much Deb. My pleasure.

Deborah Knight: Simon Birmingham there.

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