Interview with ABC News Radio Breakfast
Thomas Oriti, Host: A delegation of European parliamentarians have been in Canberra this week to discuss the EU’s free trade deal with Australia – five years after talks first began. And meanwhile the Federal Government’s negotiating with New Zealand and South-East Asian nations to bolster trade and investment in the region.
The ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand free trade agreement was created actually back in 2010, but now economic ministers are looking at how it can perhaps be upgraded. Some of the changes discussed at a meeting in Cambodia at the weekend included a simpler process to validate the origin of goods and improved e commerce arrangements.
So, lots of things to discuss in this space. We’re joined now by Tim Ayres, the Federal Assistant Trade Minister. Senator, good morning, and thanks for your time.
Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: G’day, Thomas. Good morning.
Oriti: You were at this meeting in Siem Reap in Cambodia. How do you want to see the trade agreement updated? What’s wrong with it now?
Assistant Minister: Well, it’s been the foundation since 2010 of Australia’s trade, you know, within our region. It’s a region with 700 million people in it, and it’s more than $60 billion worth of goods traded across the region. So, it’s a very important agreement for Australia in both a trade sense but also, it’s, you know, an important multi-lateral vehicle in the region for engagement – you know, for engagement for Australia.
What I want to see in the upgrade of the agreement is improvements in – yes, in some of these areas of detail but I want to make sure that there’s a lift in ambition of the agreement. Currently only about 2.1 per cent of Australia’s foreign direct investment, you know, investment by Australians in projects and operations overseas, goes to within our region. I’d like to see as part of the upgrade improvements to the level of ambition on foreign investment that’s good for Australian investors but critical for a region that needs investment in productive capability, that needs investment in, for instance, energy infrastructure and renewable energy infrastructure if we're going to meet - you know, if we're going to meet the challenge of climate change and as a globe meet our Paris targets.
Assistant Minister: So that’s the kind of subject matter that needs to be, you know, included in the final agreement if it’s to – if it’s to really, you know, realise its level of ambition.
Oriti: Sure, sure. I mean, it’s a complicated thing to discuss, but let’s just look at the broader picture here. You know, relations with Beijing remain prickly at best. You know, just tell us, okay, you’ve focused on some of the areas that you’d like to see changed, and I imagine you’d like to see, you know, a level of benefit to exporters and importers and consumers in Australia. But how important is this? How important is strengthening Australia’s ties with New Zealand and ASEAN nations as those tense relations with Beijing continue?
Assistant Minister: Well, the most important thing that the region can do that’s vital in Australia’s national interest is to have strong and deep relationships within the region, and trade is absolutely a component of that. You know, Australia supports a rules-based fair approach to trade. And that means, you know, strengthening regional institutions like this is absolutely in our national interest as well as being in the interests of our – you know, of our exporters and importers and the interests of Australian business and workers.
Assistant Minister: You’re right to point to the fact that strengthening these kinds of, you know, regional institutions, strengthening the rules-based order is absolutely in Australia’s national interest as well in our economic interest.
Oriti: Rocky road ahead, though, when we discuss trade. You can’t ignore China. How do you plan to move forward with China with regards to trade?
Assistant Minister: Well, the most important thing that we can do as a country is continue to calmly and consistently assert our national interest. And these kinds of agreements play – you know, play an important part in us doing that. And strengthening these kinds of regional institutions is very important.
You know, in an environment where efforts at economic coercion have sharpened importers and exporters’ focus on these issues, it’s very important that, you know, in the trade portfolio we’re focused on diversification. And that does mean diversification in both a market sense, so strengthening the options and opportunities for Australian exporters, but it also means product diversification.
It means engaging in the kind of industry policy efforts that the Australian Government’s engaged in – the National Reconstruction Fund, a series of these projects – to lift Australia up the value chain to mean we’re producing more products, more economically complex. Because that’s in our national interest in terms of diversification, but it’s also where the good jobs are, Thomas. It’s where the good jobs and opportunities for Australians, particularly in our regions and suburbs are.
Oriti: Well, let’s say on the topic but move away from South-East Asia, because I note the new British Prime Minister Liz Truss was formerly the UK International Trade Secretary. Where are we up to with the free trade deal with the UK at the moment?
Assistant Minister: With the United Kingdom? The agreement is making its way through the parliamentary processes. I’m very confident that that agreement on the Australian side will make its way in a speedy way through our parliamentary processes and confident that on the United Kingdom side they will deliver that on their side of the agreement too.
It’s an important agreement. There’s a lot of economic value in this agreement. We’ve just got to ensure that it’s delivered in a speedy way.
Oriti: What about the rest of Europe? You know, because I note the French Trade Minister has been visiting Australia. Are you confident that all of those diplomatic troubles with France of course off the back of the AUKUS debacle are over?
Assistant Minister: Well, four days after being appointed as the Assistant Minister I was in Paris for a meeting of OECD ministers ahead of the World Trade Organisation. And the reception that Australia got following the election of a new government was overwhelming, not just from our French counterparts but more broadly. An enormous amount of enthusiasm for Australia regionally and the rest of the world on climate. As you pointed to, a reset in our relationship with France. There is a strong reservoir of goodwill that’s out there now.
It’s our job to carefully work through in the national interest the details of the EU free trade agreement. But the reception that I got on behalf of Australia, the renewed interest in relations with Australia is very, very strong. And I was very pleased to see it.
Oriti: Okay. I’m afraid we’re out of time, Senator. Thanks very much for joining us. Appreciate it.
Assistant Minister: Thanks Thomas.