Interview with Rod Corfe, Outback Radio, Mornings

Rod Corfe
Indigenous Voice to Parliament; Prime Minister’s visit to Papua New Guinea; Government’s proposal for mandatory country of origin labelling for seafood.

Rod Corfe, Host: And joining us now on the program is Senator Tim Ayres. Senator, how are you today?  

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: I'm good, Rod. Good to talk to you, and happy new year to you and to your listeners. 

Corfe: Happy new year to you, and the Federal Labor Government. How's the year started off for you?  

Ayres: I hope that all of my colleagues and all of your listeners have had a bit of a break. And I want to pay tribute, of course, to those people who haven't had a break over the January and Christmas period, people particularly in our healthcare system, aged care, people who have worked, you know, have worked through, people working in agriculture who can't take a break. It's an important period of the year for people to spend with their families, and I hope that you and your listeners got as much of that as you possibly could. 

Corfe: Yes. And we've had a lot of those emergency services people dealing with things right across the listening area, particularly down around Menindee?  

Ayres: Yeah, those Australians who particularly those people who are volunteers in the SES and in their communities who, at these times, which, you know, just so often floods, bushfires, so often around this period of the year; December, January, February, we're thinking of those people in western New South Wales affected by floods at the moment. It's been a very challenging set of circumstances. Of course there have been floods in Western Australia as well. They've been managed very well. There's been strong cooperation between the Commonwealth and State Governments over these questions. But in the end, of course, there's people in regional areas who bear the brunt of these natural disasters, and it's of course, yes, there is a lot of support, but we recognise that it's the volunteers in regional communities who make all the difference. 

Corfe: One of the issues that is having a bit of trouble, I would say, is the Voice to Parliament. Where is the Federal Government on The Voice?  

Ayres: Well, Anthony Albanese has made it very clear that the Government's going to initiate a referendum; it will occur in, over the course of the next year. It is a very simple proposition that has emerged from the Uluru Statement, which was the product of five years of consultations across the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community right across Australia. 

This proposition is very simple, that there should be an amendment to the Constitution that requires that there should be a Voice to the Parliament. It's a very simple proposition. It means that there will be a Voice to the Parliament on issues that affect First Nations Australians directly to the Parliament and directly to Executive Government. 

It will be transformative in terms of the approach that Government takes [on] the issues affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and it's a very simple, and I would say, a small and generous request from First Nations Australians to the Australian people to recognise this in the Constitution, and you know, I'm really looking for to this change being made, to the debates that inevitably will occur in the lead-up to an important referendum like this, but I'm very confident that Australians in the bush and in the city will see the common sense behind this proposal; will look through the war of words that will inevitably be there and see that this is a common sense proposal that sets the country up for the future in a really strong and effective way. 

Corfe: There is already opposition to it, one of the political parties saying they won't be voting for it. There's also groups coming out now saying they want more detail. When do we get detail; do we need detail?  

Ayres: Well, I see Mr Dutton, the Leader of the Opposition has requested more detail, and wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, that he released to the media before he sent it to the Prime Minister, with a list of 15 questions. 

I mean even a cursory reading of the publicly available material answers all 15 of Mr Dutton's questions very, very clearly. 

This is an amendment to the Constitution. It provides for Parliament to make adjustments to how The Voice is constructed over time. That's how the Constitution works. It's a matter for the Parliament to implement the Constitution within the boundaries that it's given. 

It sometimes feels like, with Mr Dutton's approach to this debate, that if all the detail that he requested was incorporated into what would then be a very long and convoluted, you know, referendum question, that Mr Dutton would then oppose it on the basis that there was too much detail, and it restricted the role of the Parliament in the process. 

This is a very simple proposal that provides for an advisory Voice to Parliament, not a determinative voice, an advisory Voice to Parliament that will mean that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people finally have a voice over the issues that affect them, and that will make the Parliament and its deliberations and Executive Government's deliberations better, because we'll have The Voice of Aboriginal people in the process. 

Corfe: And for local people, the people of Bourke or Brewarrina or Walgett or Dubbo, what will it mean to the local Indigenous people?  

Ayres: Well, we know that at a national level that it will deliver better policy outcomes if there is a strong representative Voice to the Parliament, and to Executive Government. We know it because we know that in local communities, where there is a strong and effective local voice, that it makes a real difference. 

I know that in your listening area, for example, in Bourke, where there is a strong voice around issues like youth justice and caring for young people in the community, the Justice Reinvestment Project in Bourke, is a shining example of the kind of things that can be achieved when Government listens to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And that's the kind of leadership I think that sends a beacon message to the country about what can be achieved with a Voice to Parliament. 

We have a long way to go. It's not the only thing we should do, of course. The Voice is an important step, but there are many, many other things that the Government should do working hand in hand with the First Nations communities to lift living standards, to deal with the issues of justice and recognition, that are going to make all of our communities stronger. It's going to make Australia a stronger place in the future; it's going to make it a fairer place, and it will send a message right around the world about the kind of country that Australia is and the values that we've got, and the inclusive decent kind of country that Australia is and will be in the future. 

Corfe: And what will it mean to the others, and the white Australians, and the other multicultural people?  

Ayres: Well, for non Aboriginal Australians, this is an important step too. It's an important issue of social justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, but it also says something about the kind of country that we are. It says that we're a confident country, confident in our past and confident about our future, that we listen, as a matter of principle, listen to our First Nations Australians about the issues that affect them.  

I think this will be the kind of change that in years to come Australians will wonder why we hadn't done it much earlier than 2023. This is a common sense referendum question that will lead to real benefits for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, but will also say something really clear about the kind of country that we are, and a level of self confidence and decency in Australia, and I'm really looking forward to this debate; I think it's an important debate to have, an important constitutional referendum, and I'm really proud that the Albanese Government is putting it forward. 

Corfe: We're speaking with New South Wales Senator Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Manufacturing and Assistant Minister for Trade. The Prime Minister visited Papua New Guinea recently. 

Ayres: Oh, yeah, this has been a very, you know, your listeners will have seen one of the things that the Government has done, apart from, you know, carefully delivering on the things that we said that we would do during the course of the election campaign. You know, cheaper childcare; cheaper medicines for Australians; a whole range of national level reforms that are making life better for Australians, putting downward pressure on the cost of living. 

We've also set about reengaging with the world, and in particular this, our regional neighbourhood. That's what's going to determine making Australia a safe and secure prosperous country into the future, is having good and strong relations with our neighbourhood, particularly those nations across the Pacific, and Papua New Guinea is so important to Australia. 

You know, sometimes you worry that young people, you know, growing up, haven't learnt enough about history and how important Papua New Guinea is and has been as a partner to Australia, and the Prime Minister's visit there, over quite a few days last week, reinforced that partnership, and it delivered some practical, important outcomes. 

Firstly, you know, reinforcing the value of the relationship, dealing with some of the strategic questions that are in front of the two countries as we approach some of the challenges in the region, but also at a practical level that's going to make a difference for Australians in the regions, backing in the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility Scheme, so that 8,000 more agricultural workers from Papua New Guinea will be coming here to support our agriculture sector in its, you know, in the period where we've got real skills and labour shortages in agriculture. 

That's an important practical step that supports economic development here and supports economic development in Papua New Guinea.  So, yeah, this is a pretty important trip, you know, dealt with very early in the political calendar for 2023. 

Corfe: When I first got out of home I worked for Colgate Palmolive, and they have offices up in Papua New Guinea, and I was, "Oh, I’d like to go and work up there" at one stage. We do really have strong links, even business links?  

Ayres: Oh, strong business links, strong people-to-people relations. Of course Papua New Guinea is our closest neighbour. It is a nation of somewhere between 8 to 10 million people, the estimates provide for. It is a democratic country with a strong tradition that Australia has played a critical role in Papua New Guinea’s [indistinct], and we've been strong partners ever since. 

You know, one of the things that I really look forward to, I was really delighted to see that there was some discussion about this, you know, it's not the biggest thing in terms of international relations or economic relations, but I think it is important, is the discussion about including a team for Papua New Guinea in the National Rugby League. 

Corfe: Yes. 

Ayres: That would be a wonderful development. It will be terrific for players from Papua New Guinea to have an opportunity to play in the NRL in a team that's based in Papua New Guinea; it would be terrific for people to people relations, and would encourage, I think, more travel, more understanding, and more understanding amongst Australians of how important this country has been to Australian development. 

So, you know, it's not the biggest thing. It will take some years to work that issue through, but I'm pretty excited to see that that's on the agenda and is being discussed between the two countries. 

Corfe: Yeah, can't wait for that to happen, myself. Making seafood labelling clearer, simpler and mandatory for hospitality settings. You're very keen to see this happen?  

Ayres: Yeah, well, this is my job, actually Rod, to deliver this reform. You know, we in Australia, the seafood that we consume is still around somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent produced overseas, and most Australians who see seafood that isn't labelled assume that it's not labelled because it's from Australia; that's what the research shows. There is a requirement in supermarkets for seafood to be labelled in terms of its country of origin. What we have committed to doing is extending that to hospitality. We're going to make it really simple for hospitality. We're keen to make sure that there's not a difficult compliance burden here, that businesses under these [indistinct] now in a consultation paper, will just require businesses to say, you know, "These prawns, or this squid or this fish is from Australia," or it's imported, or it's of mixed origin. 

So very simple reforms that everybody from high-end restaurants, to the pubs, to the fish and chip shops, can easily comply with. But what it will mean is that Australian consumers will get a real choice, because they'll know what it is that they are buying, and we're backing in the seafood industry who've been fighting for this reform for 15 years. 

You know, I've met with trawler operators and people across the seafood industry, and I'll be doing more of that over the course of this year. These are hard-working Australians, working up and down our coasts, you know, in a pretty tough industry, working really hard to deliver high quality produce for Australian and overseas markets, and I'm determined to see the Government backing them in. 

They deserve a Government that's in their corner, we're going to support the seafood industry, and I want to get these reforms done, and I think most Australians want to have a real choice, and most Australians, when presented with the choice, will back the Australian seafood industry. They know it's sustainably harvested here, that it's high quality, and you know, they want to back the industry. So we see this as a very simple proposition. I know there's opponents out there, but I'm keen to get this reform done. 

Corfe: Yes, where I'm sitting it's pretty much a long way from the ocean, but it is probably more important for us to know what we're eating. 

Ayres: Well, that's right. I mean people still consume plenty of seafood out in the bush. You are a long way away from the coast. There's a little bit more water in the Darling River at the moment, of course, but all of the seafood will be trucked in or flown in. I think consumers in Bourke, Menindee and Lightning Ridge and Broken Hill will want to know where their seafood comes from. 

These reforms have been enacted across in the Northern Territory; there have been seafood country of origin labelling laws for quite some years now; they operate very smoothly, and I think Australians expect the Government to be backing the seafood industry and making sure consumers get a real choice. I think it's a very simple self-evident reform. 

Corfe: It appears regional Australia is about to get a new airline, Bonza? 

Ayres: Yeah, it's a very welcome development. It's 15 years since the last new entrant into the Australian aviation market. Your listeners who have been looking to buy airline tickets recently, since COVID, will have seen, you know, there's a lot of upward pressure on airline prices, if people are trying to get tickets to Australian cities, or tickets overseas, there is a lot of very expensive tickets. So competition in the local market will be good. 

I'm excited to see that this new airline, Bonza, based in regional Queensland, will be operating regional routes including direct flights from Tamworth to the Sunshine Coast, regional routes to regional cities. 

This is an area that I'd welcome increased competition in. All of the airlines should be having a fresh look at the regional routes. It's an area that's under serviced; it's important for economic development in the regions, and the Government's very pleased to see that this new airline entrant have got CASA approval and appears to be heading for take-off. 

Corfe: Senator Tim Ayres. Thank you for your time today. 

Ayres: Any time, Rod. Happy new year to you and your listeners. Good to talk to you. 

Corfe: Catch up in a couple of weeks. Thank you.