Interview on LA FM, Tasmania Talks, with Martin Agatyn

  • Transcript, E&OE
Topics: Increase in Tasmanian exports, government support to exporters, China still ordering Australian goods.

Martin Agatyn: Interesting figures coming through suggesting that despite the pandemic that’s been going and the shutdowns all over the world, including here in Tasmania, that the demand for Tasmanian produce in China is still very, very strong. In fact, almost $1.5 billion for the last month. The Federal Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment is Senator Simon Birmingham who joins me now. Good morning, Simon.

Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Martin. How are you?

Martin Agatyn: Yeah, good. Thanks for your time, I really appreciate it. This is really good news for Tasmania. I mean, we’re not the only part of Australia that are getting these sorts of results but it's really good to see that China still want what we're making.

Simon Birmingham: Well, Martin, it is great news for Tasmania and it's a real triumph for Tasmania's small businesses, the exporting businesses in Tasmania who are holding up against the incredible challenge of the pandemic right now, and are holding up, frankly, better than almost any other group of exporters around the country. Most other states and territories have seen some drop in exports as a result of the pandemic, but Tassie has managed to hold and it’s stable in the financial year — 2019-2020 — whilst a number of other states went backwards. And that some $3.6 billion worth of goods exports heading out of Tassie, spreading right around the world.

Martin Agatyn: Yeah. And I think I said in the last month, I meant to say in the last year, but it's up $316 million up from the year before — which is pretty good for a little place here in Tassie — and an increase of $429 million on the previous year as well. And it’s- our seafood is really leading the charge, isn't it?

Simon Birmingham: Seafood is such a big part of the story. Seafood exports growing, or fish exports growing by some 73.2 per cent in…

Martin Agatyn: Wow.

Simon Birmingham: …Tasmania and that's phenomenal growth. And of course it's just a testament to the quality, the reliability, the safety of that produce as it heads out to the world. And importantly for listeners, yes as you said in your intro the market into China has grown, but it's also grown significantly elsewhere. It's growing even more into South Korea, up some 28 per cent growth in South Korea; 17 per cent growth into Singapore. Strong overall export growth — up some 12 per cent for beef exports and plenty of that headed to the Middle East. So you can see a growing diversification in Tasmania's exports as well. And it's a testament to the resilience of those exporters, to the strategy that I know the Hodgman Government, and now Peter Gutwein’s Government has deployed, of trying to grow those export opportunities around the world for Tassie. And also a vote of endorsement for the different trade deals that's federally we've done over the last six years to create more opportunities for Australian exporters.

Martin Agatyn: And I think we had a trade mission from Tasmania not so long ago go to India too, and that’s a big market, potentially untapped to a certain degree. And we’ve taken a lot of our call center jobs offshore so it's nice to be able to send something back to them.

Simon Birmingham: Well, we're working hard to grow the Indian market. I spoke to my counterpart virtually through a meeting last week in India and yesterday convened a group of federal ministers across agriculture, including Jonno Duniam, the key minister for us here in Tassie; along with the Education Minister; and, the Resources Minister, all of us purely focused in those discussions yesterday on what we can do to keep growing the Indian market.

It’s about continuously looking for new opportunities for our exporters. The world never stands still, even in the middle of a pandemic you've got to be dealing with a whole range of other changing market conditions around the globe, new opportunities. And what we've done over recent years is build our exports to a level where- and I think this will surprise many of your listeners — Australia's recorded a trade surplus now for 30 months in a row. That means that every one of the last 30 months we have exported more as a country than we import, and that's been a real key to our economic strength, to growing jobs across Australia, and it will now be important to our economic recovery. And it's great to Tassie holding up so well in that export environment despite the challenges of the pandemic.

Martin Agatyn: Very impressive figures when you consider that the last three months have been unlike any three months we've ever had before and- in most of our lifetimes. I know too that the Prime Minister was pretty clear yesterday in keeping the trade with China at arm's distance from some of the other tensions and things that are going at the moment in our region of the world — so, this probably needs to continue, we really can't afford to get the two involved. We had China of course banning, I think, beef from a couple of farms in Australia, and we really need to keep politics out of this sort of thing, don’t we?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we've been very, very clear as a government — we won't ever trade away Australia's values, we won’t ever sell out our interests, particularly our national security interests, and we've got to be true to those values and firm in them. But that doesn't mean we don't value China and other nations that may have different values, different systems to us, but we still value them as partners where we can cooperate. And particularly in terms of areas of mutual benefit, such as our economic partnership, we want to continue to maintain that, to engage respectfully, and to make sure that that we do, ideally, continue to see opportunities for businesses to trade.

That sort of trade doesn't just deliver short term economic benefits, but ultimately over the long term it helps to increase understanding between one another, and that understanding at a business level, at a cultural level, at a government level then helps us deal with those areas of difference and difficulty better in the future.

Martin Agatyn: As much as we may want to separate politics and trade, we know the Chinese government don't always do that. I think that one thing we've learnt from the pandemic is that we can't really afford to put all our eggs in the one basket — we can't rely solely on China as our major trade partner, and that's why we're looking at places like India and in other areas of the world now.

Simon Birmingham: Well we have always had a strategy of maximising the choices available to Australian exporters. It's why we didn't just do a trade deal with China but, as the government over the last six years, we've opened up new trade deals with South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, Indonesia — pursuing new opportunities not just with India but also with the United Kingdom and the European Union.

We know this is about giving our exporters and our businesses the maximum choice about where they can get their products to, to make some opportunity to get it into those countries at the least cost with the lowest tariffs and taxes in place. And it's been yielding enormous results through record export growth into many different markets over recent years. And that’s not only a vote of confidence in terms of the deals that have been done and the opportunities they've created, but even more importantly it's a vote of confidence around the quality of Australian goods, our reputation for being such a reliable producer and supplier.

And it's why, during the pandemic, we've stepped up by funding freight flights out of country with certain support. Exporters are still having to pay more than their own way in terms of what they’d usually pay, but more than 90 per cent of Australia's air freight traditionally goes out of Australia in the belly of passenger aircraft. Well of course, those passenger aircrafts aren't flying at present, so we've stepped in. And indeed some of the- one of the first flights that happened was to get Tas- our salmon to Taiwan, helping to secure some 1500 jobs that were looking in jeopardy at that stage if that export market had been lost. And that's about short term of ensuring we've got planes flying to get goods out of the country, but also the long term of maintaining that reputation for reliability as an exporter.

Martin Agatyn: I know you mentioned Senator Jonno Duniam, of course a Tasmanian, and I talk to Jonno on a regular basis every couple of weeks. And he's, I think, Assistant Federal Minister for Fisheries, and he's been pretty active in getting that sort of support for some of our seafood and other exports going out of Tasmania.

Simon Birmingham: I couldn't speak more highly of the advocacy from Jonno and his work to support the fisheries sector, in particular, through this trying time and to make sure that their export markets were kept open. But also his work as the Minister responsible for forestry and helping to deal with many of the logistical challenges that have been in place in supply chains around the forestry sector, and, also his work with me as Assistant Minister for Regional Tourism. And plenty of tourism businesses doing it very tough at present, and lots of consultation with them to make sure that the way we've structured the billions of dollars in support for wage subsidies and for small business payments — and the JobKeeper scheme has been crucial lifeline to that sector. And Jonno’s been very important in those engagements and discussions.

Martin Agatyn: It's good to see that we've come through the last few months with some positive results, and like it can only get better. Simon, thanks for your time this morning. I really appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: Martin, my pleasure. Any time.

Martin Agatyn: Your welcome. Simon Birmingham, Senator Simon Birmingham I should say, the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment- Federal Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment.

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