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Subjects: Trans-Pacific Partnership; Joe Biden's Australian Visit; Free Trade Agreements; Brexit; New Cabinet and Ministerial Appointments
20 July 2016

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Joining me now is the Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, live from the nation's capital. Thanks for your company.

STEVEN CIOBO: A pleasure. Good to be with you, Peter.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: You guys have got no chance in the Trans-Pacific Partnership actually getting through unless Obama does it ahead of the US Presidential Election. Surely both candidates who are running to be the next president say no. What chance is there that Joe Hockey will convince the Congress and the current President to get it all done so quickly?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well I don't think that's a correct summation of where we're actually placed. The fact is that the most likely scenario is that it would be in what's called the lame duck session. That's that period after the presidential election but prior to the inauguration of a new president. But look ultimately this is a decision for the United States Congress, the Republicans and the Democrats are having conversations. The Obama Administration remains very focused on trying to drive the TPP through its domestic ratification process in the Congress. So I had some really good meetings with Senator Orrin Hatch and Chairman Kevin Brady, the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives. I remain cautiously optimistic.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Do you think if it doesn't get done during that lame duck period, as you describe it, that there really is a chance that either presidential candidate is essentially bluffing for domestic political reasons now ahead of the election? Is one or there other more likely in your view to only be bluffing and to actually be prepared to sign on to the TPP and get it ratified?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well I don't think I'm in a position to make that assessment to be honest, Peter. The feedback that I have from the Americans, from those who are well versed in Congress, from the conversations I've had with Ambassador Hockey, tend to indicate that the best case scenario would be for it to occur in the lame duck session. If it wasn't to pass in that lame duck session, I'd say it's got very little chance post the inauguration of a new president.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: What's the good news for Australia out of what Joe Biden's had to say on his whirlwind three day tour here?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well I think what Joe Biden, Vice President Biden, has made clear is that the relationship between Australia and the United States remains incredibly strong. We are, of course, allies. We've been very strong friends in the region and indeed across the Pacific Ocean now for many decades. That continues to be the case. The message from the Vice President spending so much time here in Australia is to reinforce the supremacy of the relationship that we have with the United States and to reinforce that Australia and the United States continue to have, at the core, the strong alliance that exist between us.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: You're the Trade Minister. We have got enormous trading relationships with both China and the United States, one very much historically so and it continues. The other one emerging at an incredibly rapid rate in relation to China.

But it did seem from what Joe Biden said just earlier today that there was a bit of a warning about don't write the United States off. Is your biggest worry that we're going to get forced in some increasing tensions between the two to choose?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, I don't think. I mean, our relationship with China especially on a trade front is very strong. China is certainly an emerging power if not, a superpower in its own right now, as many would say. The fact is that China and Australia have a very strong relationship and incidentally so does Australia and Japan. If you actually look at the way in which Australia has successfully managed to deal with Japan, the United States and China, you start to get a sense of, I believe, the fact that Australia is well regarded, we're even handed with respect to those relationships, and although there is often tension from time to time between those parties, Australia's able to straddle those tensions and really pursue our national interest as well as be a fair player throughout the region.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: South Korea, China, Japan, your predecessor Andrew Robb struck free trade agreements with all three in just the first term. How many are you going to strike in this - the second term - to be able to judge successfully against you?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well look, I think what matters is the quality of the agreements that are struck. We obviously have a number of relationships that we are pursuing in terms of free trade agreements. I'd nominate first and foremost the conversations that I'm having with Indonesia with Tom Lembong, Indonesia's Trade Minister - very cordial discussions at the start of this year. A strong commitment from both of us. We hope to be able to secure agreement between Australia and Indonesia on a free trade agreement. Of course, in the last term toward the end, I worked together with Andrew Robb on the Singapore Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. We've also got broader relationships in that too, Peter. Looking at pursuing the opportunities that exist for a free trade agreement with the European Union; looking at possibly doing something with United Kingdom now that they voted for Brexit, as well as what we can do with Arab states for example; and of course, I was just going to say one ongoing conversations with India. That's the only one I'd add.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Let me ask you about Brexit and the UK. Do you see opportunity or downside in what's happened there to be able to deal separately with the UK from the EU?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well I think we'll make sure – I mean I've had conversations with Minister Sajid Javid in the UK. There is a strong appetite to look at basically building off the very strong historical relationship between Australia and the UK. Everyone knows the strength of those historical bonds between our nations. Clearly there's a process that the UK needs to work through as they exit the European Union. That process is anticipated to take at least two years if not longer. So the UK can't in its own right go into a free trade agreement with, for example, Australia while it remains a part of the EU. It would need to do it separately once it's actually withdrawn. Now, we can obviously in parallel with those conversations have conversations ourselves between Australia and the UK about what an FTA might look like and of course, I'm going to be pursuing that. And I also stress that I'll be maintaining the ongoing discussions that we've been having with the European Union as well.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Can I just clarify just very quickly something on the tourism front. On the tourism front, various people were noting, myself included, that it looked like there wasn't a tourism minister. It got tacked on to you and there was an assistant minister put in but with Colbeck stepping out as the Tourism Minister, it was perhaps a void here. Were you informed ahead of time that you were adding tourism to your portfolio mix or was that something where you had a very quick chat with the powers that be after the Prime Minister had announced his team?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, no, no. The Prime Minister and I had spoken about it previously. It was always a part of the mix that I had. I think it was just an omission that he didn't mention it when he made the announcement. But of course, you would have noted the list that the Prime Minister's Office issues immediately contained it. So no, it wasn't an oversight. It was always part of - we sought a better alignment between the trade and investment portfolio to have tourism. And I mean bear in mind too, Peter, that previously as Trade and Investment Minister, I still had Cabinet responsibility for tourism as well. So it's a natural fit.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Is it a natural fit really though? The Trade Minister is away more than anyone else. You're more like a tourist if I could it that way than a Tourism Minister. You're hitting the global stage so often.

STEVEN CIOBO: Well look Peter, I've had a very, very long involvement with Australia's tourism industry. Obviously coming from the Gold Coast means a lot of the key stakeholders have interests in my own electorate. I, of course, have also previously been chair of Friends of Tourism. I've had a very active involvement with all of the major tourism bodies whether that's the National Tourism Alliance, whether it's TTF, whether it's Australian Tourism Export Council, whether it's AAA, the Australian Hotels Association. There's a lot of key stakeholders. Really strong relationships. I've put the question to them in relation to tourism being part of my Cabinet portfolio and the industry made it very clear to me that that is something that they wanted. In addition to that, I have of course, an assistant minister in Keith Pitt, who'll be able to go to all those things that I can't attend when I am overseas negotiating free trade agreements.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: We're running out of time but just quickly, is it an upside for you that you'll be largely having to phone in to what could otherwise be a fairly unyielding 23 person Cabinet, The Australian editorialised about it not being a very agile Cabinet?

STEVEN CIOBO: Look, I think the Cabinet is an appropriate reflection of the focus that the Prime Minister has put on both in terms of the balance between the National Party and the Liberal Party, but also the clear focus we have on the key areas that have been identified. We've got a very big agenda ahead of us. We've got a difficult challenge in relation to budget consolidation. We're very focused on making sure that we live within our means, but we've got a number key policy issues that we're pursuing as well. Defence industry capability. The Northern Australia White Paper. The work that we're doing on Free Trade Agreements. The active agenda that we've got to make sure that the budget is brought back under control. So I think the Cabinet will function exceptionally well. I know that the team that's sitting around that Cabinet table are very energised, very focused and we're going to make sure that we deliver, and deliver in spades, on the promises that we took to the Australian people at the most recent election.

PETER VAN ONSELEN: Trade Minister Steve Ciobo. We really appreciate you finding the time to talk to us on NewsDay, particularly today following Joe Biden's speech. Thanks for your company.

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