Kieran Gilbert, Host: To some other news now, and the Australian Trade Minister, Don Farrell, has recently returned from Europe. He’d been in Geneva working on a Free Trade Agreement with the EU, among other nations and groups, that has already been years in the making. We spoke a short time ago.
Trade Minister, Don Farrell. Thanks very much for your time. Last time we spoke you were at the WTO and spoke about your confidence about landing a deal with the EU. Where does it sit now?
Don Farrell, Minister for Trade: Look, I’m still confident, Kieran. We’ve got some hard negotiating to do. I had a very positive reaction from all of the Europeans that I met. One of the things I’ve done since I spoke to you last, was actually meet with the French Trade Minister. I got a very positive reaction from him.
I believe any obstacles that might have been in the way, as a result of decisions from the former Government, are put aside, and I think we can work with them and the rest of our European friends to get a Free Trade Agreement.
One of the things I did was meet with 15 or 16 members of the European Parliament. These are, of course, the people that are going to have to make a decision as to whether we do or don’t get an agreement.
There was almost an audible sigh of relief about the change of Government. They are coming to Australia in the next few weeks. I’m going to be meeting with them just to reinforce our view that it is an important agreement, and it is one that we have to get on to very quickly.
Kieran Gilbert: When you speak about the sigh of relief for the change of Government ‑ you mentioned that to me previously ‑ is it all about the climate issue, in your mind, the fact that your Government is more forward-leaning on it?
Minister for Trade: Look, that helps. I don’t think that’s going to be about just that. It is about the relationships. We are not a bombastic Government. We are not treating these people with disrespect as, I believe, elements of the previous Government did. We want a good respectful relationship with these countries. We expect them to treat us in that same way. We are going to treat them in that way.
And over a lifetime in politics, Kieran, I’ve discovered that civility is never a sign of weakness. I think it is a strength. We are going to have good, solid, respectful, civil relations with these countries. And I think that’s going to lead to a very good agreement with one of the largest trading blocks in the world.
Kieran Gilbert: So with the French meeting as well, it is interesting you made that point about your counterpart, in saying that the rapprochement looks like it has been secured ahead of the Prime Minister meeting with the President at the Élysée Palace over the next few days, so you would expect a warm reception for him there?
Minister for Trade: Look, I would expect that. I’ve been to Indonesia with the Prime Minister only just recently. We had a very positive response from the President of Indonesia, in fact he sang happy birthday to me on the occasion of my recent birthday.
Kieran Gilbert: Happy birthday.
Minister for Trade: So, no, Anthony is making all the right steps. The French relationship is an important one to us. The French are in countries very close to Australia. There are good defence reasons why we want a good relationship with them. But we want them to think positively about that trade relationship.
We want a good trading relationship with France and the rest of our European allies, and I think the meeting between the Prime Minister and the President of France will be a very good step forward.
Kieran Gilbert: What sort of benefit can we expect from an EU trade deal in dollar terms?
Minister for Trade: Well, look, I can’t give you an exact figure on that at this point in time. What I know is though is that free trade is good for a country like Australia.
One of the things that we were able to achieve through the World Trade Organisation discussions was progress towards freeing up the world trade system. The more Australia is able to sell its products overseas then, of course, we improve the productivity and the prosperity of our people.
We don’t subsidise our agricultural products, that means that we compete on a level playing field and because our products are good products, they are high‑quality products it means we can sell those into the European market, without being subject to high tariffs.
Kieran Gilbert: On the UK and the India deals, they’re done. It is just awaiting ratification. Would you like to see that happen within the first days of the Parliament sitting?
Minister for Trade: Well, we’ll set the process going. What you have to understand here, Kieran, is that the previous Government signed the UK Trade Agreement last December, but nothing was done during the period of the last Parliament to implement the agreement.
Steps have to be taken at the Australian level. What happens when the Parliament gets prorogued is that that whole process stops and it has to be started again.
Kieran Gilbert: Have you reached out to the British to say it is a priority for you?
Minister for Trade: I’ve met with the British Trade Minister. She’s coming to Adelaide in a few week’s time. I hope she’s going to come and visit my vineyard in the Clare Valley. She’s already indicated that she would.
Kieran Gilbert: Soft power.
Minister for Trade: Well, look, as I said ‑‑
Kieran Gilbert: Soft power to play ‑‑
Minister for Trade: As I said, you don’t have to be bombastic in this game, you can have civil relations with these people. Last night I met with the British High Commissioner to let her know that we’re full speed ahead for this.
The Government should have done it in the last Parliament, there were weeks when they didn’t have any legislation to present to Parliament, they could have got through. The whole process has to start again unfortunately, and I’m going to make that a priority.
Kieran Gilbert: The other huge elephant in the room is the China relationship, we still, even through the rockiest periods, our growth in exports has continued. Which I think would surprise a lot of people, but the size of our exports has continued to grow to China. Is that a priority for you? Have you had any signs that you might be able to have talks with your counterpart after we saw Richard Marles meet with his?
Minister for Trade: Well look, Kieran, I held out the olive branch to my counterpart from China, I said we were happy to meet at the WTO, unfortunately, even though the conference went for five or six days, the Chinese Minister was only there for just over one day. We weren’t able on that occasion to meet, but I don’t think that stops us from meeting in the future.
The invitation from my point of view is still open. As you say, trade has actually grown with China over the last two years of the pandemic. We have put too much in the one basket in the past with our relationship with China, but we’ve got really good products that we used to sell to China. There’s wine, there’s meat, there’s crayfish – all of those industries have stopped being able to supply the Chinese market. We want them open again and the only way we’re going to get that is by having some discussions with them.
Kieran Gilbert: Do you think those relationships in a trade sense, an economic sense, help soften the edges of some of the other differences?
Minister for Trade: Look, again, the first point I’ll make is nothing we do in this area should impact our national security. Our national security is our number one priority, and I know it’s Prime Minister Albanese’s number one priority. But that’s not to say we can’t have a respectful relationship with the Chinese. That’s not to say that the 20 billion dollars worth of business that we’ve lost in those – just those four industries alone, can’t be reopened.
My objective into the future is to, as best I can, try and re-establish that relationship with the Chinese, get them to understand our point of view. Their people like our products, what we know is when we were supplying them with all of those products I mentioned before, they like our products, we need to get back into the Chinese market.
Kieran Gilbert: And finally, as special Minister of State as well, we’ve seen a bit of a stink about some of the requirements- some of the arrangements from new crossbench MPs and their staff. Is the Government open at all to compromise, do you think, on that?
Minister for Trade: Look, the Prime Minister has written to all of the incoming Teal and Independent MPs. The issue did get out of hand under previous Governments. I think the Prime Minister has proposed a sensible arrangement and I’m looking forward to having discussions with those Teal and Independent people about implementing what the Prime Minister has written to them.
Kieran Gilbert: Do you reckon there’s any wriggle-room? I just spoke to a few of them, they’re on their day one of Parliament for their orientation, and they all hoped there might be some compromise.
Minister for Trade: Look, the Government’s made its decision in this regard. The thing did get out of hand. The idea that you have an MP in one seat with four staff, the adjoining seat eight staff just depending on whether they’re Government or Teal, that’s an unacceptable position and I think we’ve restored it to what I think is a fair and reasonable outcome.
Kieran Gilbert: Trade Minister and Special Minister of State Don Farrell, thanks for your time, I appreciate it.
Minister for Trade: Thanks, Kieran.