ABC Radio AM
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Australia is set to reopen a trade office in Iran for the first time since 2010. For Australia it's a significant potential market with opportunities in agribusiness and food, mining, education and training. For Iran it's another step in the continuing detente with the west. After a decade of restricted trade most sanctions have now been lifted but there are still continuing concerns about human rights and diplomatic tension over the return of Iranian asylum seekers. The Trade Minister Steve Ciobo will travel to Tehran this week and he joins me now from our Gold Coast studio. Steve Ciobo good morning.
STEVEN CIOBO: Good morning Michael.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So the first Austrade office in Iran since 2010, in trade terms – what is in it for us?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well there is a significant opportunity. Iran has a population of some 80 million people. It has a strong focus on resources and energy which of course has complementarities with the Australian economy. There is a very strong services side to the economy as well and historically it has been a strong trading partner for Australia so as it re-integrates with the global economy following the easing of sanctions there is opportunity there for Australian businesses.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Most of the sanctions as we said have been lifted that have been in place for nearly a decade now – our views about Iran obviously have changed pretty significantly but have all the human rights and regional security concerns been overcome?
STEVEN CIOBO: I think it would be a stretch to say that they've all been overcome, but certainly Iran is moving in the right direction. The United States of course drove in many respects the easing of sanctions following the comprehensive plan of action in relation to Iran's nuclear ambitions. As those restrictions have been wound back, we are now in a stronger position to see Iran re-integrate with the global economy and hence why it is creating the opportunities that lay ahead of us.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Is that something that comes up in any of the discussions? I mean, this is still a country that jails and persecutes journalists, political activists, gays, religious minorities – I mean it's record is far from clean is it?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, we continue to see around the world different countries that have affronts to human rights. They remain a concern for Australia. We do in various fora raise our concerns as well as in bilateral meetings so it is not a case of, in any way shape or form, shadowing our concerns in this regard. By the same token, there is now economic opportunity from Iran reengaging with the world. The United States, the UK and Australia and a number of other countries are moving and looking to capitalise on this opportunity and I want to make sure as Australia's Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister that Australia is there as well.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: There is still some tension over the return of asylum seekers as well isn't there? I mean Iran refuses to accept asylum seekers if they are returned against their will. Now I noticed the Prime Minister in New York a few days ago said that the intention was still to return, what is nearly 8,000 Iranians that have been found not to be refugees and are still in Australia – do you expect, well is that an issue that you expect will come up during the visit?
STEVEN CIOBO: It very well may come up and on occasion there'll be opportunity to raise the matter. Australia's position has been clear and consistent in this respect. We do want to see an ordered approach to our border and in applying that ordered approach, that includes for those people who have come to Australia who are found not to be genuine refugees that we actually resettle those people back into their country of origin, given a large number are of Iranian descent and Iranian citizens. That of course continues to be Australia's preferred course of action that those people are resettled back in Iran.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: But there is no indication yet, or is there? Is there any indication that Iran is going to change its view on this?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well we continue to have discussions. We continue to engage with Iran and indeed a number of other countries in various international fora so we are hopeful that we'll bring the change around that's required but ultimately it is its own sovereign state and they make the determinations as they see fit.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: So obviously you think you can put all of this, well you can put all of this aside while you talk trade now that, I guess now that this new spirit of detente is amongst us?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well the opportunity Michael is that these engagements are multi-faceted. Yes there are elements that are irritants, there are elements of concern. They include the very issues that you've raised with me this morning, I mean in relation to human rights, in relation to the resettlements of Iranians. By the same token, there is other facets to the relationship. And as Iran continues to move from the position it was in where sanctions were in place to now re-engaging with the global economy, that creates those economic opportunities. I mean we know that we have opportunities in relation to agribusiness and food. We know we've got opportunities in relation to vocational education and tertiary education. Water management, another crucial issue for Iran where Australia has a strong history – a lot of intellectual property and technology tied around effective water management. These are all opportunities for Australia to engage with Iran in that market.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: How much do you think it is worth?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, I'm not going to put a figure on it. I mean, what we do know is that even with the sanctions in place, two way trade with Iran was in the hundreds of millions of dollars – sort of moving between around $350 million up to nearly $600 million. With the sanctions easing, there is of course significant potential for that figure to move north of there. I would like to see that. There are still challenges though. There's challenges in relation to banking settlements. There is challenges in relation to the global finance network and how that applies to Iran. But those companies that are coming with me on this delegation will have the chance to see the lay of the land in Iran. To test the appetite in Iran for engagement with Australian businesses and try to develop an approach that will work out those challenges.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Ok, can I ask you about the domestic political issue of the moment which still seems to be this debate over same-sex marriage. Now it is pretty clear again that the vast majority of Australians are in favour of allowing same-sex marriage. You've had some advice over the weekend, this morning from Jeff Kennett among others who said their Government should negotiate with Labor and compromise. Do you think that a bit of give and take is reasonable in this area now? To get the plebiscite? To get agreement on the plebiscite?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well look I do think agreement on the plebiscite is important, but let's be clear. There is only one person hat is standing between Australians having their say in the form of a plebiscite or not having their say and that is Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. The fact is the Coalition has moved to deliver on its commitment, a commitment we made clear ahead of the election, a commitment we put to the Australian people at the election and a commitment that has been endorsed by the Australian people who re-elected the Coalition. That commitment was that every Australian of voting age would have the right to have their say on a plebiscite. We've moved quickly and expeditiously to put that in place, proposed a referendum – February 11 next year. The only reason and the only reason that that would not happen alone is because Bill Shorten and the Labor Party choose to stand in the way of Australians having their say.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Ok. But there is a meeting today with George Brandis and his shadow Mark Dreyfus to discuss this. It is pretty clear that Labor might come close to agreeing to the plebiscite idea if there was such things as public funding was dropped and the result was considered binding on parliamentarians. Why not do that?
STEVEN CIOBO: Because I think it is important that for fairness to apply it's got to be seen to be fair. We have seen public funding of yes and no campaigns in Australia for quite some time. The Government has taken that forward. It is a fair approach. It is one that does present both sides and I've got to say Michael, the argument that is put forward by the Labor Party and others that in some way the Australian people, the public figures are too immature to have a rational and considered and calm conversation about the composition of marriage in Australia. I do personally find a very curious position to hold. I mean Australians are capable of having mature rational conversations. We don't need to be, have the Labor Party looking down their nose at the population of Australia and basically saying look, you're all too immature to have a conversation about this in a respectful tone. That is not the case and you know what? There is ugliness in all sides of debate. We see it from immigration through to marriage equality, through to a range of different issues. We do see ugly sides from time to time. That is not a result of public funding, that is result of some views that are held and let's be frank, on both sides of a lot of these political debates and so therefore I think it is highly disrespectful to Australians that the Labor Party would ignore their verdict at the last election and ignore their right to have say on something as fundamental as marriage.
MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Ok, Steve Ciobo, we'll leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us.
STEVEN CIOBO: Thank you.