Interview with Sarah Dingle, ABC Radio National

Sarah Dingle
Mandatory country of origin labelling for seafood in hospitality settings; Foreign Minister’s trip to Beijing; Australian lobster industry.

Sarah Dingle, Host: If you're making a trip to the fish markets for your Christmas lunch, it will be pretty easy to see where those prawns or oysters are coming from.  But if you're at a café or a restaurant, it can be hard to know where your grilled fish has been sourced. Now, new rules are being considered by the government. Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing, Tim Ayres, is here in the studio. Thanks for joining me.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: G'day, Sarah. 

Dingle: Under this proposal, those in hospitality would have to provide more details on the origin of seafood. Why is this necessary? 

Assistant Minister: Well, right now well, right now about 62 per cent of the seafood that's sold in Australia is from overseas, and we know that most Australian consumers believe that if the seafood isn't labelled, therefore, that it's Australian. And so, this set of reforms is designed to give consumers a real choice. So, when they go into a fish and chip shop or into a restaurant, these new requirements would mean that consumers would be able to see whether the seafood is Australian, whether it's imported or whether it's of mixed origin. So, it's a really simple set of requirements that are designed to give consumers a real choice. 

Dingle: And why now?  Is that because there is demand from consumers who want to know, or is this about the industry, and the industry wants to differentiate themselves from cheaper imports? 

Assistant Minister: Well, the first thing is this is a commitment that Anthony Albanese and Labor made in the lead‑up to the last election, so we're working through the process of delivery on all of the commitments that we made. The seafood industry's been really clear about this issue for some years. I think it's a win for the seafood industry, yes, because it will give consumers a clear signal about whether the product is from, you know, local Australian seafood, or whether it's from overseas. But I think it's a win for consumers too. Consumers want to know. They want a real choice, and this will mean that consumers can do that. We do have in mind though making these requirements really simple with a low compliance barrier for restaurants and for the hospitality sector. That's where these reforms are pointed out, a simple, easy to understand, easy to comply with requirement, but a win for the seafood industry and a win for consumers.

Dingle: I did want to ask about that, because there was a Deloitte report commissioned by the previous government last year which found that expanding country of origin labels to the food service sector would impose a significant cost burden, particularly to small business, at a time when they can't get staff to run those businesses anyway.  How are you going to ensure that this does not just add extra pressure to a sector which is struggling? 

Assistant Minister: Well, the last government found every way that it could to say no to this set of reforms. What I've done here is to make sure that the requirements are really simple. A literal translation of all of the country of origin labelling requirements across to this would involve some complexity. We've made it that the proposal is really simple. You just indicate, is it Australian, is it imported, is it a mixed origin? It's a very straightforward requirement.  At a fish and chip shop, it just means identify that on the blackboard that the customers read on their way in. Because the purpose here is just to make it easy for consumers, easy for the industry, but also deliver an important win to the seafood industry. I mean this industry is mums and dads operating up and down our coast. You know, it's a tough industry, it's been under a lot of pressure, and we're determined to make sure that industry gets a fair shake.

Dingle: More broadly on trade, this week, of course, huge news: Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, met with her counterpart in Beijing saying afterwards she wants a more structured dialogue. What's the next in a structured dialogue? Is it another high‑level meeting? 

Assistant Minister: Well, high level dialogue is always a good thing, and I think we've seen that over the course of the last six months as the government has set out to carefully, confidently and consistency advocate Australia's interest, not just to China, but within the region and on the global stage. Penny Wong's recent trip to Beijing, where she again carefully set out the Australian interest, and you know, and that's a continuation of all of that work over the last six months. The next step in trade terms is really a question for China, and the trade bans that have been imposed, including in the area that we're talking about today, in seafood, aren't a good thing for ‑ of course for Australian exporters ‑ but they're not a good thing for Chinese consumers either. And the best time for those bans to be lifted would be yesterday, they should never have been imposed in the first place, and the second best time is over the coming weeks. 

Dingle: Well, there are some signs there. Ridiculous that we have to go to social media, but anyway, China's General Administration of Customs posted on social media encouraging consumers to buy Australian lobsters this week. Is that a sign of progress; is that how this is all going to unravel, just quietly, softly in the background, resuming normal relations?

Assistant Minister: Well, as I say, that is a question for China. It's up to them to resolve these bans in the interests of ‑ yes, of the relationship ‑ but also of Chinese consumers. It has hit hard. A number of our exporters have done very good work in diversifying their markets, diversifying their product offering. That has been tougher for the Australian lobster industry, and it has had a real impact. So, I look forward to an early resumption of that trade. But also say to your listeners, there's nothing like buying Australian lobster for Christmas. You should get your shoulder behind the wheel, if you deliver a lobster for Christmas, you'll be very popular.

Dingle: We know you are going to the fish market soon, so I won't ask what's on your shopping list, but just briefly, Australia has launched a formal complaint with the WTO about the tariffs on wine, the tariffs on barley. Will you withdraw that action so that we can resolve this with China one‑on‑one, and both sides can save face, which, as we know, is very important? 

Assistant Minister: Well, we've carefully and consistently advocated Australia's interest here. That has involved using the tools that are available and multilateral institutions like the WTO. We as a country are going to continue to pursue our interest in a careful and effective way.

Dingle: So, the complaint stands? 

Assistant Minister: Well, the complaint stands and it's a matter for the Trade Minister how that proceeds. 

Dingle: News time now, it's 7 o'clock.