ABC Radio AM

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Free Trade Agreements with the United Kingdom and European Union; Joint Working Group; Global Protectionism; Foreign Political Donations.
07 September 2016

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Australia has been quick to act on the opportunities that might flow from the Brexit vote in the UK. The Australian Trade Minister, Steve Ciobo, has been in London for talks on formulating a comprehensive Free Trade Deal, once the UK formally leaves the EU. The process could take some time, but both governments have now announced the establishment of a Trade Working Group designed to fast-track free trade negotiations. I spoke to Steve Ciobo from our London studio earlier this morning. Steve Ciobo, both sides see an opportunity in Brexit but what's in it for us?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, the opportunity for Australia is, of course, to build on the very strong trade and investment links between Australia and the UK at present. I want to make sure that in pursuing a free trade agreement with the UK once they formally exit the European Union, Australia's able to capitalise upon the rich mature market the UK represents.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And what will we get out of any future one-to-one agreement that we haven't got out of an agreement, any agreement we may have with the EU?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, following the UK decision to exit formally from the European Union, it's a reset of sorts so Australia is able to negotiate as comprehensive and ambitious a trade agreement as we possibly can. There's very strong political alignment between the Australian Government and the UK Government in this respect. We both have high ambition, we want it to be comprehensive, commercially meaningful, and that basically means that we're in a position to negotiate an agreement that's going to serve both of our interests very strongly.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Of course none of this can happen until the UK actually does leave the EU. How long is that likely to take?

STEVEN CIOBO: I'd anticipate at this stage given that Prime Minister May in the UK indicated that Article 50 would probably be triggered in the first quarter or second quarter of next year and then from there it's another two years of negotiations between the UK and the European Union on their exit. So we're talking probably, reasonably, two and a half years' time. But that notwithstanding we'll still continue, of course, having some preliminary discussions and indeed I was very pleased today to join with Secretary Fox, the UK Trade Minister, in announcing between the two of us that we would be pursuing a working group to pursue this.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: And, of course, negotiations continue to seal an FTA (free trade agreement) with the EU itself. Is this likely to impact on that in any way?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, there is some crossover. Obviously the UK continues to be a member of the European Union until such time as they do formally withdraw. And as I mentioned, that's expected to be in two and a half years' time or thereabouts. But in the interim our conversations with the European Union continue at pace. It's a conversation that is ultimately, I'm hopeful, going to lead to the formal commencement of free trade agreement negotiations with the European Union I hope in the first half of next year.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: This issue of free trade, I mean, part of the reason for Brexit was, I guess, a disillusionment with the sort of free trade environment. Have you sensed that the goal posts have shifted a little abroad for these sorts of free trade deals?

STEVEN CIOBO: We're certainly seeing examples of more pro-protectionist sentiment being ventilated around the world. But I think in Australia and I'm certainly intending to continue to be a very strong advocate about the many benefits that flow from free trade. I mean Australia has enjoyed 25 years of continuous economic growth. Now that's not solely a consequence of free and liberalised trade but that's certainly plays a major role. From an Australian perspective we know that our agricultural sector is among the best in the world. We have opportunity to continue to export agricultural products around the world. Two-thirds of what we produce we export so it's a great income source for Australia. We also know that as we continue to remove tariff barriers that our country is enjoying higher levels of national prosperity and those higher levels of national prosperity drive economic growth and drive employment opportunities for Australians.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: I guess, the question is, are the people with you because clearly we've seen a protectionist swing here in Australia too, in the last election.

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I do believe that Australians are. I mean, I recognise and respect the fact that some Australians feel alienated by globalisation, but I am not going to shy away from the fact that free trade has delivered Australians to date a standard of living that is the envy of so many people around the world. Free trade has delivered increased national prosperity, it's delivered economic growth, 25 years' worth. And it's also continuing to provide economic and should I say employment opportunities for Australians as well and that's a direct consequence of our engagement with the world.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Okay, just quickly on a domestic issue. You are among those who've said in recent days that there should be a fresh look at political donations. Is that likely to happen?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I think it's a matter of course that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has a review of campaign finance. That has been done before and I'm sure it will be done again. I've indicated that perhaps there is some merit in confining donations to individuals and ruling out opportunities for corporations or unions for example to donate to political parties. But ultimately this is a decision for the Parliament and for the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Have all parties become too reliant on foreign donations, do you think?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, I think that's certainly an exaggeration to make that comment. I certainly don't believe that's the case. We continue to see, of course, though that there are expenses involved in running election campaigns. Fundamentally the decision is whether or not we put all of that burden on the public purse or whether we continue to allow political parties and minor parties and independents and others to raise campaign finance in the way that we've gone about but in a way that's respectful of the need for transparency.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: Okay, Steve Ciobo, thanks very much for joining us.

STEVEN CIOBO: Pleasure, thank you.

MICHAEL BRISSENDEN: The Australian Trade Minister, Steve Ciobo speaking to me from London.

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