Interview on 6PR Mornings with Gareth Parker
Gareth Parker: Gorgonzola, gruyere, prosciutto, feta, mortadella, even Scotch whiskey – these are all terms that the Europeans want us to stop using to the extent we are using them if we're producing those things here. It's all about free trade negotiations. The Trade Minister Simon Birmingham. Minister, good morning.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning. Great to be with you.
Gareth Parker: Thanks for your time. So look, we've had this debate before about what you can and can't call foods. We're about to- well, we're in the middle of negotiating with the EU on a trade agreement. Why has this cropped up again?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the EU has made a list of demands as part of these trade negotiations. They want to see certain terms that they believe are particular to European producers protected. Now, we haven't agreed to protect any of those terms but we are publishing them and getting the feedback from Australian industry to help inform our negotiations with the EU. It's a huge market for us – 500 million plus consumers – already our biggest export market even though we have huge barriers to export there. So we want to get a deal, a good deal for Australian farmers and businesses, but we have to, of course, deal with the EU's request as part of that negotiation.
Gareth Parker: Okay. I mean, there's hundreds and hundreds of different items on the list- well, there's two lists, isn't there? There's one for food and one for alcohol.
Simon Birmingham: That's right. So there's around 400 different names that the EU have requested protection for. A little under half of those are foodstuffs; a little over half of those relate to spirits.
Gareth Parker: So, what do the EU want? They want to prevent us, for example, an Australian producer who might want to, for example, produce prosciutto, which is something on the list. They wouldn't be able to call it prosciutto. An Australian producer who wanted to- I can see on this list here gruyere - cheese, they wouldn't be able to call it gruyere.
Simon Birmingham: Well, that's right up to a point there. So, in the case of prosciutto, what the EU is asking for is protection of three different types of prosciutto. So, prosciutto di Parma, prosciutto di San Daniele and prosciutto Toscano, forgiving my bad pronunciation…
Gareth Parker: [Laughs]
Simon Birmingham: That wouldn't prevent Australian producers from making prosciutto…
Gareth Parker: Right.
Simon Birmingham: …selling prosciutto as Australian prosciutto or it's Western Australia prosciutto as a regional variety in Australia of prosciutto. So, the entire terms that the EU seeks protection for usually where in the case say of Toscano, obviously, that relates to prosciutto produced presumably in the Tuscany region…
Gareth Parker: Yeah.
Simon Birmingham: And they're wanting to protect that very precise geographical representation of their products. So in most areas, there's a way around it for Australian producers but there are some sensitive ones such as feta, where they're seeking the entire term and I expect we will hear some real concerns from Australian industry about that and we'll have to take those back and argue the case with the Europeans, try to get a better outcome for Australian producers.
Gareth Parker: Right. So, there are some that are a bit more blanket than very specific regionally?
Simon Birmingham: There are a handful that I expect will be the areas of real concern for Australian producers, and so what we want to do there is understand the market and the value in those terms, understand the arguments that producers make, which is usually that these aren't really a geographically specific product. There's actually a cheese making process and has a process that means the product could be made anywhere. And of course, in the case of feta, it's not just group feta that you can buy on the supermarket shelves or Australian feta. Even different parts of Europe produce feta as well. So we'll no doubt have some robust discussions with the Europeans when it comes to negotiating process around that.
Gareth Parker: How big an element is this issue in what is- I mean, these trade deals are always very big and complicated. How seriously did the Europeans take it? Are they digging their heels on it?
Simon Birmingham: This is a real point that the Europeans insist upon which is why we're going through this public process. As a government, as a country, Australia doesn't really love this European concept of geographical indications. Of course, we protect trademarks and expect people to honestly represent the country and the regional origin of their product. But in the end, the Europeans have with other countries simply put negotiations in the freezer and refuse to move further if a country hasn't at least gone through the type of process that we're undertaking. So, if we want to get a deal and we want to get more access for sheep meat producers or grain growers or Australian services, businesses, then we need to of course get on, deal with and assess the European demands so that we can fix that final point of negotiations and hammer out a deal that hopefully means our farmers and businesses can have much better, more competitive terms to sell their goods to Europe in the future.
Gareth Parker: Do we have any corresponding requests of our own about calling things certain Australian regional names?
Simon Birmingham: We don't precisely at this stage, although there are a few that have rattled around, including a suggestion that we just have a look as to whether there are additional protections, for example, around Indigenous artworks that could be comparable in some of these negotiations. Our wine industry did a deal with the European Union a number of years ago, which saw them give up terms like champagne and Rhein Riesling as part of the negotiation. But also saw our wine industry place more value on their own domestic regional representation such as Margaret River or Swan Valley. And so, there may be things that come through as part of this process. [Indistinct] King Island cheeses, of course, they're well recognised right across Australia and a very precise geographical representation that we could seek to have protected. Of course again, you'd be pretty hard pressed to misrepresent that if you were anything other than a King Island producer though.
Gareth Parker: Right. But with feta, you say, I mean, there is Danish feta, there's Persian feta, there's European feta, there can be King Island feta or Margaret River feta.
Simon Birmingham: I think that will certainly be part of the argument that we hear and no doubt part of the argument that we put back to the Europeans. So, just because they've demanded it, it doesn't mean that it's a take it or leave it scenario. We may be able to work through compromises. But as long as it is clearly represented as being Australian feta or there might be grandfathering options available, let's consider all the different permutations there and that's part of the reason for going out, being very transparent in these negotiations and hearing the views of Australian industry.
Gareth Parker: How far along the process are we on this trade deal? Is there any deadline to try and achieve something that's signable?
Simon Birmingham: So we've come some way. Negotiations were formally commenced last year. I expect that we can- if everything goes exceptionally well, then hopefully, we can [indistinct] the negotiations next year and that's certainly the ambition that I'm working towards. But it's got to be a good deal in Australia's interests for us to do it. And I mentioned sheep meat before, to take that as an example. We currently have just a fraction of the access to the European market that, for example, New Zealand has. So, Australia has had a bit of a raw deal when it's come to access into that market historically. We want to make sure it's a much better deal in the future if we're to do this agreement with the EU.
Gareth Parker: Okay. I mean, and I think that's significant. We've had so much debate about live exports, in particular, when it comes to sheep in this state and getting access to alternative markets, high value markets, may actually be a solution to that issue. That means that it's not farmers that cop it, they actually win out of it.
Simon Birmingham: Yeah. It's critical for so many of our different producers and ultimately, farmers and businesses decide who and where they sell their goods and produce to. But as a government, what we've sought to do is give them the best possible terms that they can get into those markets. So that's why, I mean, over the last six years, we've struck trade deals with Japan, Korea, China, Indonesia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal covering a number of countries, and we keep these negotiations going to give the maximum number of choices and options to our farmers and our businesses to get in on the fairest terms with the lowest tariffs and taxes applied to their products; and what we've seen, as a government having done that, is our export volumes are at record levels. We've produced a record trade surplus over the last financial year and that's just underpinning growth in jobs and opportunities right across Australia.
Gareth Parker: Okay. Thanks for your time, Minister.
Simon Birmingham: Nice to talk to you, Gareth.
Gareth Parker: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.