Interview on ABC Breakfast with Michael Rowland
Michael Rowland: As Britain prepares itself for a pending departure from the EU. Australia is monitoring how this impacts bilateral trade. Simon Birmingham is in London where he is meeting British officials about the very direct implications for Australia and the Minister joins us now. Simon Birmingham, good morning to you?
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Michael, good to be with you.
Michael Rowland: Firstly, how important is the UK trade market for Australia?
Simon Birmingham: The UK is very important for Australia - we have around $13 billion of exports that come into the UK on an annual basis. Australia has more than $300 billion invested in the UK, across businesses, super funds and individuals. So of course it is a very, very important market - our seventh-largest trading partner - and what we want to make sure is whatever happens with Brexit, and Brexit is, of course, the business of the UK, their government, their people, but whatever happens, we are well-placed in terms of ensuring that our flow of trade in goods and services is able to continue into the UK in the future and ultimately, if the UK does leave the EU, that we're able to seize the opportunity to even further strengthen our trading relationship by establishing a free trade agreement with the UK.
Michael Rowland: Given what you have said and how important, obviously, the market is for Australia, how concerned are you, being in the eye of the storm personally, at how much of an omni-shambles this whole Brexit process has become?
Simon Birmingham: There is clearly deep uncertainty. That's why we've been working overtime to make sure that Australia is well-placed whatever occurs. So just in the course of the last few days, we've seen two new agreements signed between Australia and the UK, which can ensure that our wine coming into the UK can come in under the same terms of recognition as it currently does under the EU arrangements and around one in five bottles of wine sold here in the UK is Australian wine, so it is a very, very important market for Australian winemakers. Similarly, recognition arrangements in terms of a range of other products around how they're tested and inspected were put in place - again, a replica of the agreement that currently exists with the EU here into the UK to make sure that Australian producers, Australian exporters, are protected and get the best possible access whatever the eventualities of the Brexit debates here.
Michael Rowland: Realistically, how soon could Australia and the UK reach a separate trade deal, given there's still so much uncertainty about that March 29 deadline and even, as you know, minister, speculation the deadline may in fact be moved?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Michael, those are matters for the UK and the EU to sort out through their processes. Australia, though, is taking a belt and braces approach to what may happen around Brexit. We have free trade agreement negotiations underway with the EU and if it were the case that the UK were to stay in the EU customs union, well then of course, that would be a free trade agreement that encompassed the UK as well. Equally, we have a trade working group established with the UK which at the minute, if they leave the EU, we will then transition that into free trade agreement negotiations with the UK. So in either eventuality, we are well-placed to get on and make sure that we don't just preserve current market arrangements but hopefully in the long-term, and ideally faster than that, we can get in place better market access for Australian farmers, Australian businesses, into both the EU and into the United Kingdom.
Michael Rowland: Let's go from Brexit to Kelly O'Dwyer's exit from federal parliament, and were you shocked when your colleague decided to pull up stumps over the weekend?
Simon Birmingham: Kelly is a dear friend and I will miss her incredibly from the parliament, from the parliamentary ranks, and from, ultimately, the Cabinet. She has been a very fierce defender of Liberal values, both economically and socially, and is someone you could always count on to stand up when required and fight for what was right. But I can understand Kelly's decision. She is the third parent of young children in the space of the last 12 months to decide to leave the parliament - two on the Labor side, and Kelly now on the Liberal side. As a parent of young children myself, I well and truly understand the pressures that the parliamentary life places in terms of juggling those family responsibilities.
Michael Rowland: What does it say about those pressures seeming to fall more heavily on female MPs than male MPs?
Simon Birmingham: Well, of the three that have left over the last 12 months, or announced their intention to leave it's two women and one man, so we've seen a mix there. Of course, this is a battle that exists in households right across the country, right around the world, in terms of how it is that working parents juggle those responsibilities. The parliament is not different in that sense - there are many other careers where people travel, spend time away from home, all of us have to come to our own arrangements with our partners to make sure that we give the best possible environment for our children, but that also, of course, that our families have that stability in the long run, and that is for each and every family to sort out according to their own very personal circumstances.
Michael Rowland: Should the new Liberal candidate for Higgins, Kelly O'Dwyer's seat, be a woman?
Simon Birmingham: I hope so. That will be a matter for the pre-selectors in Higgins. I'm sure it will attract a very rich field. It's a seat, of course, that prior to Kelly was held by Peter Costello, so it is a seat with a rich Liberal Party history of people who have made an incredible contribution to our country through that seat in the likes of Peter and Kelly and I trust it will get high-quality, high-calibre candidates, and I know there are a number of high-quality, high-calibre women looking at it at present.
Michael Rowland: There is talk of Peter Costello having another hit at federal parliament, that is out of the box but is that something that your colleague should consider?
Simon Birmingham: I think it's out of the box. I think it would be highly, highly unlikely, Michael, and I suspect we will see new talent, fresh talent, and I'm sure somebody who will go on and make a contribution akin to what Kelly and Peter have made to the Liberal ranks and to the nation in the future.
Michael Rowland: Just before we go, another of your colleagues quit parliament on Friday, David Bushby, the Liberal Tasmanian Senator and surprise, surprise, within an hour of his departure it was announced he was getting the plum post of Australia's Consul-General in Chicago. You can see why voters get really, really irritated by this sort of thing?
Simon Birmingham: Well, it is not unusual in certain countries for political appointments to be made because that actually works quite well at the diplomatic level. Here in the UK and in the US that is a common case. Indeed, not that long ago the Consul-General to Chicago was a former MP and Labor whip. These are postings that because of the way in which government-to-government interaction occurs in these countries, such as the US, it is not uncommon to make political appointments because they provide a certain access and currency to those governments at those times.
Michael Rowland: We will leave it there, Simon Birmingham in London, thank you so much for joining us on News Breakfast this morning.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Michael.