ABC, News Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Senate reform, Indonesia free trade negotiations, sugar tax, Harper Review.
17 March 2016

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: It's a long day for our politicians, including Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, who joins us now from Parliament House. Steven Ciobo, good morning and thanks for joining us.

STEVEN CIOBO: Good morning Virginia.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: We'll speak just a minute about the bilateral trade deal that I know Australia and Indonesia, you in particular have set your sights on clinching, revising or returning to that issue. But in the meantime looking at the upper house, is it time for debate on changes to the Senate voting laws? Is time for debate to end there?

STEVEN CIOBO: Look, we obviously would like to get on with the business of governing Australia. Senate reform is part of our agenda because Senate reform will better reflect the will of the Australian people. We'll have, we think, the Senate comprised more appropriately in accordance with the expression that Australians have about who they want to represent them, rather than having in particular a large crossbench made up of people elected off half of one per cent of the vote, and those types of things. So we've had a really thorough debate on it, but we're committed to the debate going for as long as the debate needs to go. We think it could be done a little more efficiently, but at the end of the day Virginia those of us in the lower house realise that those of us in the upper house sometimes take a little while to have their point.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yes, they get through on their own time, but looking at it more broadly, do you believe the crossbenchers are simply doing what they are entitled to do as Senators there in the upper house or are they overstaying their welcome or crossing the boundaries?

STEVEN CIOBO: I don't think it is a case of overstaying their welcome or crossing the boundaries, I think what's happened though is we've seen, and we've seen this in a number of incidences, where frankly there is a so-called preference whisperer, the opportunity for people to effectively game the system. We've had changes made to the way in which people vote for the Senate multiple times over the years. What this is going to do is enable Australians to be able to allocate their own preferences about the way in which they want the Senate to be comprised rather than actually having someone do it in some back room deal, so that's why we say this is actually going to bring the Senate and align the Senate with the actual expressed voting will of the Australian public.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: And it looks like the same-sex marriage bill has also been dragged into the matter today and it's going to be up for discussion today. Is that a good outcome?

STEVEN CIOBO: In terms of Senate business, I'm not sure if that's listed for debate or not, I'm not across exactly what the Senate is covering in terms of all the bills, but I think this issue has been really well ventilated. Let's be clear, we're going to go to a plebiscite. Every voting Australian will have the opportunity to have their say at a plebiscite. I think that's a case of it being open and shut.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: So turning to that trade deal with Indonesia, what are the non-negotiables for you in that trade deal?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, Virginia, and pardon me if I say I don't want to dive straight into what we won't talk about, what I want to talk about is the opportunity that is presented by the recommencement of discussions with Indonesia. Indonesia is, of course, a close friend of Australia, but it is also the closest neighbour that we've got. 250 million people, it's a G20 country and frankly our trade investment relationship between Australia and Indonesia is underdone. What we announced yesterday was the recommencement of discussions around a comprehensive economic partnership agreement, in other words we want to bring our two economies closer together. There's a lot of complementarities that exist between the Australian economy and the Indonesian economy and we see this as being fundamental to driving jobs and growth here in Australia.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: But are there any non-negotiables?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well no, I don't go into it with a list of things I don't want to talk about, I go into it with a list of things that I would like to secure that are in Australia's national interest, that's going to help to drive jobs and growth, that going to help to continue with our expansion in terms of the innovation side of the economy, continuing with our transition away from resources and energy into other parts of the economy, like tourism, like education, like the services side which is now roughly 75 per cent of the Australian economy. So that's what I'm focused on. The gains that can be made, and importantly and I know it is a bit of a cliché, but the way these trade deals work best is when you secure a win-win outcome, that's ultimate will what gets them across the line. And we're committed to doing this. I'm very committed to doing this and we hope to do it inside the next 12 to 18 months.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The live cattle trade would stay?

STEVEN CIOBO: Look the live cattle trade would stay and that will be, no doubt, a point of discussion with Indonesia. The Indonesians are understandably are still a little upset over what happened under the former Labor Government when overnight they turned off the live cattle trade, and of course, let's not lose sight of the fact that Indonesia is a developing economy, it's very different to Australia. The protein demand in Indonesia is very large and for a lot of people they need to have access to high quality protein because frankly, it's not, the shelves are groaning with produce, so this is part of the opportunity that Australia has.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Let's move onto other subjects just quickly if we can. Is it time for a sugar tax on sugary drinks here in Australia? We've just seen one introduced in the UK?

STEVEN CIOBO: I'm not going to get into that, I'm not making here a policy announcement or anything like that Virginia-

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Can I just ask you as what was your first thought as the Minister responsible and seeing that happening in a country very similar to ours, what was your first thought seeing that tax introduced?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, the Minister responsible would actually be the Treasurer, of course, but in terms of having a look at what would happen, I mean if you ask what's my personal view, I'm not a fan of that, I think the more you get in and distort these types of things, the more government causes havoc across the system, when you just impose additional taxes on one particular area. But look, anything that we're going to do on tax will be part of a pre-election announcement, will be incorporated into the Budget, so I think Australians will know where they stand on one of those sorts of issues.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: As one of the Government's most chivalrous supporters of the free market, is big business right to be horrified by the introduction of a lower threshold effects test?

STEVEN CIOBO: The Coalition has made a decision. We've made a decision that we think the Harper Review into competition policy more appropriately puts forward a recommendation that's actually going to work to promote competition in Australia. Now, I understand the Business Council of Australia, the big end of town and of course the Labor Party have a unity ticket on this issue. We have a different point of view. We heard a clear consistent message from the small business sector across Australia that said they wanted reform. We had a comprehensive review into it, we had very broad-based consultation across the community with small, medium and large industries and we've taken the view that given the low track record of there being successful prosecutions on misuse of market power, that an amendment to section 46 was the right way forward.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Minister, you've just described a unity ticket between the big end of town as you say and Labor, you've just created a threat to your own constituency?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, Virginia, the great thing about the Coalition is we have a very broad-based constituency. I can tell you we have a lot of support from the small and medium sized enterprises across Australia, the suggestion frankly that's it's just the big end of town is quite frankly wrong.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Just one other question before you go. After such a promising start, why is it that the Prime Minister and the Government seem to have lost so much momentum?

STEVEN CIOBO: I don't think that's a fair characterisation. If you look at what it is that the Government's been doing, we have been getting on with the job that we were elected to do, and that is to make decisions in the national interest.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: No-one has heard much of them yet, I guess?

STEVEN CIOBO: I'm grateful Virginia that you give me the platform to raise some of them now this morning. We've just recommenced negotiations on free trade agreement with Indonesia, we released a $1.6 billion Defence White Paper, we had a $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda that we've just released. If I just think about announcements over the past couple of weeks and not to mention, of course, the most significant reform to Australia's Competition Policy to promote outcomes that are good for small business and good for competition, so there are four things just in the last several weeks that the Government's announced. We haven't lost momentum at all. What we're doing is focused on governing in the national interest, making the big decisions that Australians elect us to do, that ultimately are going to drive jobs and growth for our country.

VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Good to talk to you, Minister.


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