Interview on ABC News, News Breakfast, with Virginia Triolo

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Hong Kong Protests; Trade Deal with the EU; Infrastructure Spending.
13 August 2019

Virginia Triolo: The Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us in the studio now. Minister, good morning and thanks for making time.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Virginia.

Virginia Triolo: Let's pick up with Hong Kong and the situation there. What's the Federal Government's greatest fear right now about that situation?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we would certainly fear any escalation in violence or tensions. What we have consistently urged is that parties engage in peaceful discussions and dialogue to try to resolve these issues, that there be respect firstly for the one country, two systems approach that operates in relation to Hong Kong's relationship with mainland China. We have that in our economic relationships, we have separate trade agreements with Hong Kong versus with China, and we want to make sure that respect continues. But also, secondly, critically, that of course there be respect for the right to freedom of assembly and peaceful engagement in terms of how these issues are resolved.

Virginia Triolo: Although, of course we're just not seeing that, and it seems that horse is long gone and long bolted. If this is morphing into - and it seems it is now - developing into a proxy battle for independence, or a real show of separation from China, that's something the protesters want that China just can't give and won't give. What's the consequence of that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Virginia, it's probably not helpful to play out hypotheticals. What we want to see there is a peaceful resolution. As I said, respect one country, two systems. That is indeed, what some of those protesting are urging for. In the end, and that is a matter for Hong Kong to sort out amongst themselves. But Australia strongly respects the right to freedom of assembly, strongly acknowledges the two systems that exist, and we do urge those authorities and those who are protesting to find a way to ensure a peaceful resolution of this.

Virginia Triolo: Your colleague, Andrew Hastie, just made your life as Trade Minister a lot harder last week, it would seem, with our major trading partner, following his criticism of China. But is he right? Largely, in his criticism, or the caution that those who engage with China have to exercise because it is such a different country, with such a different approach and different system?

Simon Birmingham: I think in terms of the argument about China becoming a much more influential country again in the world, a much more powerful country, the Prime Minister has tackled that question, as he identified in a speech just before the G20 Summit. Those countries have great power and responsibility, which are now particularly the United States and China, do with that great power, have great responsibility that they need to exercise and show in their engagement with the rest of the world. We are well aware - as the PM has again acknowledged - of the strategic challenges that we face ahead. But we have to work hard to make sure that the worst of those strategic fears is not realised, and that we do engage with every country across our region in the world in a way that tries to get the best possible outcomes for our national interest and, indeed, for the peoples of our region in the world.

Virginia Triolo: Let's move on to the subject that you're here to discuss this morning, which is the geographical indication names that Europe might want to pull back as part of a new trade agreement with Europe. Are they names that you're prepared to give up? Can we live without them; Feta, Gruyere and the like?

Simon Birmingham: Look we've made no promises to the EU in terms of giving up any names. But we've agreed to go through this process and they've given us a list of terms. We're publishing it to hear what Australian industry thinks. The EU is a huge potential market for Australia. It's around 500 million people. It's already our third- largest export partner, even though we have significant trade restrictions in terms of the volume and price at which we can sell goods in the EU. So huge potential upside for us, but this is one of the EU's demands. We're looking at it and considering it, and we'll go and talk to Australian industry about it.

Virginia Triolo: But what do you think?

Simon Birmingham: Look, I think that some of the terms the EU is asking for clearly that clearly do have geographical representation attached to them. Camembert de Normandie, for example, clearly attached to a geographic region, doesn't stop Australia cheese makers from producing Camembert and selling it as Camembert as long as they don't use the de Normandy attachment to it.

Virginia Triolo: They couldn't really because it's not from Normandy [indistinct].

Simon Birmingham: Correct. So that's not an unreasonable request.

Virginia Triolo: Sure.What about Gruyere? Which is a place.

Simon Birmingham: That's right. In terms of some of the others that actually would restrict the use of an actual variety of cheese as we see it, they're ones where we're going to have to work closely to see the economic value of it is, listen to the cheese makers in Australia and their arguments. And then I take them back in the EU negotiations and get the best deal I can overall for Australia.

Virginia Triolo: Sure. But are we really in a position to call out any of these as non-negotiable?

Simon Birmingham: Of course. I don't expect that all of these terms will fall into the final agreement. And, of course, there may not be a final agreement if we don't get the best possible deal.

Virginia Triolo: But prepared to walk away from such massive markets over a name?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it depends what's on the table. Overall, this deal has to be in the best interests of Australia. The market access offers, the elimination of tariffs, the increase or elimination of quotas, has to be good enough from the EU for us to do this deal. And at the same time we have to respect those Australians businesses who have invested and grown a product, and find a way to make sure that we don't undercut them.

Virginia Triolo: Just before we move on just quickly, do you have a sense at this early stage, have you had early discussions with growers and producers about how they feel about these denomination names?

Simon Birmingham: There are definitely concerns, particularly in the dairy industry.

Virginia Triolo: Okay.

Simon Birmingham: Today I will head out and visit some dairy farmers, visit a cheese maker. I will be visiting quite a few cheese makers over the next few weeks and months I expect.

Virginia Triolo: Watch your waistline.

Simon Birmingham: Indeed. But I want to make sure I listen to them, hear their concerns so that they know the Government is going to take up the fight for them, as we get the best possible deal with the European Union.

Virginia Triolo: Look let's talk about the Infrastructure Australia report, although frankly, I can imagine that many Australians are simply sick of hearing from Infrastructure Australia, an independently established body that's supposed to come up with good ideas and good infrastructure lists for the betterment of the country and governments of all political stripes simply ignoring therm. They have been warning about this for absolute years. And I know the Government bangs on about your much [indistinct] $100 billion that's coming down the line, the report makes clear that's not nearly enough. What else have you got?

Simon Birmingham: Well, it's a record investment, and it's an investment that is transforming the road networks and the rail networks of the country-

Virginia Triolo: [Talks over] I'm going to keep you to my question for this purpose. Because they've made very clear in a very solid, well-researched report, it's not nearly enough. You need that amount, rolling investment over 15 years if we're even just to keep up. So, what else have you got, is my question.

Simon Birmingham: And the $100 billion is our investment, Virginia.

Virginia Triolo: You're not answering my question.

Simon Birmingham: No. The states and territories have their responsibility as well, as they are pursuing in terms of infrastructure investment on top of our $100 billion from the Federal Government. And what else have we got? Well, each and every Budget round, we consider what's possible into the future, how we can do that. And we engage with the states and territories - where they can bring projects forward, then we look at putting the funding in earlier for those projects to happen faster. This is about being as responsive as we can, but also being responsible with taxpayers' money. We don't have a limitless bucket for investment, but we have surged the amount of investment that's occurring, and we will keep looking for those sensible investment opportunities to deal with congestion and to deliver the infrastructure needs of the future.

Virginia Triolo: So, when you look at this report, are you worried?

Simon Birmingham: Look, we're always worried to make sure that we address the infrastructure needs our country has, but as-

Virginia Triolo: [Talks over] But specifically looking at the way that IA sees the situation into the future, just the near future, just 15 years on. Are you not starting to get panicked that - not only you, but pre- governments before you – just haven't done enough?

Simon Birmingham: Not panicked, but we're determined to get on with the job. We're the Government that, here we are in Melbourne, has actually managed to make the breakthrough to get a rail line to Melbourne Airport under way which will be built. That's been a pipedream for decades.

Virginia Triolo: [Talks over] Well you've got a State Government working with you of course.

Simon Birmingham: We do. And we welcome the fact that the State Government agreed when we put the funding offer on the table first and foremost and said, let's get this done. And so we've made some big breakthroughs in infrastructure spend and we're going keep perusing those breakthroughs wherever where we can.

Virginia Triolo: Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Virginia.

Virginia Triolo: Thank you.

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