ABC 24, Capital Hill
GREG JENNETT: Well it's a public holiday in Canberra which is why the Parliament is not sitting today but the Trade Minister Steve Ciobo is among cabinet ministers who have already made it into town and he joins us now. This is going to be a fairly tumultuous week with the resumption of Parliament and the limited sitting days before the budget. You entering this week certain that there are only three sitting days before the budget?
STEVEN CIOBO: I've never suggested there was only going to be that. I mean the budget's scheduled for the second Tuesday in May, we'll see - you know what, those of us in politics don't get so caught up with the guessing games around the timing of the election and the timing of the budget - I'll leave that to you journalists to do.
GREG JENNETT: Of course, but there is a way to have that cleared up isn't there? A definitive and unqualified statement by those in the know in Government as to when it will be?
STEVEN CIOBO: You know, I think Australians want to know that Government's taking decisions that's in the national interest. I think Australians want to know that we're driving economic growth, that we're driving jobs. That's what we're focused on. Obviously the Government is frustrated that from time to time we continue to see a lot of obstructionism in the Senate, we're frustrated that the mandate we were given by the Australian people isn't respected, and I say that particularly in reference to the ABCC - the Australian Building Construction Commission bill - and we're frustrated the Senate doesn't reflect the will of the Australian people. So we're very focused on Senate reform, and we hope to get that through.
GREG JENNETT: Alright let's go straight to that then, you talk of this frustration and particularly around the industrial relation's agenda and yet no where is it listed as a priority for the these last three sitting days before we enter budget week.
STEVEN CIOBO: Well that's because we had to negation with the Greens in order to be able to get the Senate reform process through. Let's not lose sight of what's actually happened around this. And none of us are going to be lectured by the Australian Labor Party on this. I mean, this is the Australian Labor Party who when the Joint Standing Committee on electoral matters put forward their report backed in reform of the Senate said they would support it and now because they are trying to be political opportunists, they've now walked away from the position they held only months ago. So of course we need to deal with who we need to deal with. And in this case that's the Greens and we're going to try and get this reform through.
GREG JENNETT: And it would be your expectation, would it, that that takes out the whole week? Is there still room possibly left in debating time to get the ABCC looked at by the Senate?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well look we would rather that we were able to pursue our legislative agenda with as much momentum as possible. Unfortunately, and for the reasons I just outlined, the Australian Labor Party is playing games. Now if they don't want a filibuster when it comes to Senate voting reform, they could simply wave it through, they could pass together with the Government the reforms which they backed only months ago, but which they are now walking away from. So we're not going to be lectured by the Australian Labor Party on political games.
GREG JENNETT: They could - they seem to have settled an all new and somewhat contradictory position -
STEVEN CIOBO: That's their position now. That's their position now. Who knows if it will change again.
GREG JENNETT: Okay, but if you go to the end of this sitting week and the Senate have not had an opportunity to look at what you call vital legislation on the Building and Construction Commission, is it beholden on the Government to look at scheduling more sitting days so the Senate can be asked?
STEVEN CIOBO: I'm not going to crystal ball gaze. I mean, let's cross that bridge when we get to it. The fact is Senate reform is what we're focused on, we had to do a deal with the Greens to focus the debate on Senate reform because we think it's appropriate that the Senate should reflect the will of the Australian people. The Labor Party are no where to be seen on this. They've abandoned the national interest for short term political games, so we will do what we can with what we have in front of us and that means doing a deal with the Greens. What happens with the ABCC, the mandate that the Coalition has to introduce the ABCC we'll have to wait and see.
GREG JENNETT: And what you may have at the end of this week, or you probably will have, when the electoral laws pass through is the ability to remould, reshape the Senate completely under a double dissolution scenario. That's going to be very tempting isn't it?
STEVEN CIOBO: There's as a result of Senate reform, the opportunity for the Senate to better reflect the will of the Australian people. I think a lot of Australians are aggrieved at the fact that we see a number of crossbench Senators who are elected on half of one percent of the vote, holding the Government and indeed the country to ransom on an all too regular basis. I think Australians know the Coalition has been very frustrated that key economic reforms we've been trying to get through have been stalled by the Senate by people who represent a wafer, wafer small size of the Australian population, yet they hold effectively a gun to the head of the Australian national interest.
GREG JENNETT: So is it time for a circuit breaker on that beyond the end of this week?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well if we continue to see the Senate obstruct, then the Government will need to look at options. I mean the constitution does provide a mechanism for overcoming Senate obstructionism, so we'll just wait and see what happens.
GREG JENNETT: Alright, well let's move on to some other areas. You're from Queensland obviously, there's a slow-moving train wreck in far-north Queensland politics and the economy which is the Queensland Nickel and Clive Palmer's involvement there - is there anything the Federal Government can or should do to ease the pain up there?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well look I think there's a lot of frustration on the ground. I was speaking with Ewen Jones, of course the Federal Member for Herbert, very plugged into the local community, and Ewen, just on the weekend I was speaking with Ewen, and there's a great sense of frustration of the kind of games that we're seeing from Clive Palmer. I mean he continues to make statements, for example on ABC's Insiders over the weekend, statements that clearly run contrary to what's publically available and the information that's out there saying you can't get ore and the receivers turned around and said, or the administrators I should say, turned around and said 'no we've tried to sell Clive Palmer ore'. I mean I feel for the 500 families who are actually wondering what their future will hold and I think Clive Palmer needs to do a better job frankly of being an honest citizen and actually giving a sense of direction about where he's taking this business.
GREG JENNETT: If we assume, because there are no strong signals that he would reinvest, so if we assume based on that interview yesterday that he's not reinvesting, as a trade minister can you envisage that there would be foreign interest in taking hold of an Australian nickel refinery?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well I can't predict whether there would be, what I can say is that if I was approached, if an of our posts around the world, any of our Austrade offices around the world, get an inquiry or someone seeking to do due diligence in relation to Queensland Nickel then I will attempt to facilitate as much as I can. I want to attract foreign investment into Australia. We know that foreign investment drives jobs, we know it drives growth. And when we've got a prospect now where a business is effectively going to the wall and we've got someone who's interested - I don't mind whether they're local or whether they're foreign. If someone's willing to put money on the table then I think they should be facilitated as much as possible to keep a business up and going.
GREG JENNETT: Ok and a bit happening in your portfolio this week when you host Indonesia's Trade Minister Thomas Lembong. What odds do you give yourself with actually making progress on what's now been almost a four-year negotiation over a comprehensive trade agreement?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well this is gaining momentum. We've of course had one of the largest business delegations into Indonesia toward the end of last year. A lot of Australians are very interested in opportunities to do business with Indonesia, to grow that market. Of course Indonesians are interested in engaging with Australia as well. Frankly the trade and investment relationship has been underdone, so I'm reasonably confident that through the application of good effort, good work and a good attitude, which I do believe exists on both sides of this, I'm very confident that we'll be able to strike a deal I hope and continue to advance the relationship between two nations that have a lot of complementarities when it comes to our economies.
GREG JENNETT: The power of the individual in trade negotiations can be significant, I think as your predecessor Andrew Robb was able to display. Is Mr Lembong from your analysis someone more inclined towards open and freer trade than perhaps some of his predecessors?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well Minister Lembong certainly is making it very clear that Indonesia wants to engage with Australia. I want to engage with Indonesia. If there's opportunities for us as a consequence to be able to do a trade deal, to be able to do an investment deal, then that is certainly something that I am very keen to pursue. Prime Minister Turnbull of course has a very strong relationship with President Widodo and I'm confident on building upon that strong stable foundation.
GREG JENNETT: And possibly getting President Widodo to Australia before too long?
STEVEN CIOBO: Time will tell, I'm focused on trade and investment, I want to drive jobs, I want to drive growth and part of doing that is of course being able to facilitate these kinds of deals.
GREG JENNETT: Alright Trade Minister Steve Ciobo. Plenty to get on with for you this week and at Parliament generally. But thanks for your thoughts today
STEVEN CIOBO: Pleasure.