EMMA ALBERICI: The prospect of both an early budget and federal election is looking increasingly likely tonight.
Coalition frontbenchers have told the ABC the Government is considering handing down the budget on May 3rd, a week ahead of schedule. That would help clear the path for a double dissolution election on July 2nd.
The Prime Minister refused to rule out an early poll today, simply saying the budget would be held in May.
That was also the response of our guest tonight, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo. He's been busy this week flagging the idea of new trade agreements and he joins me now from Melbourne.
Steve Ciobo, welcome back to Lateline.
STEVEN CIOBO: Good evening, Emma.
EMMA ALBERICI: Among the countries you're considering striking new free trade agreements with is India. What's the biggest hurdle to that particular deal?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, India's been ongoing for some time now. We've seen discussions taking place between Australia and India now for a little over 12 months.
Of course, Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Abbott reached an agreement for Australia and India to look at what we could do in terms of a free trade agreement. We're very keen to have a successful conclusion around this discussion and around these negotiations.
But ultimately, you know, we're talking an economy of some 1.2 billion people. There's a lot of complementarities between Australia and India, but there's still a lot of work to do. So we approach in good faith and discussions continue.
EMMA ALBERICI: Why was India excluded from the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, discussions around the TPP obviously go back in history some way and involve a number of different factors. I don't profess to speak on behalf of India. There is opportunity, most importantly - rather than looking into the past, let's look to the future - there is opportunity in the future if India saw fit for it to come into the TPP.
I think the TPP is a good deal for Australia. I think the TPP is a good deal for all 12 countries that are associated with putting it into place. So in the fullness of time, we'll see which other countries might choose to join that TPP framework.
EMMA ALBERICI: Negotiations for an FTA with the Gulf Corporation Council kicked off nine years ago. How committed is your Government to that particular agreement?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, great question. I'm very committed to it, Emma. I would like to see us be able to do more with the Middle East. Now, that may not, given the length of time that's elapsed, be in the form of a free trade agreement.
I've actually met with GCC ambassadors in Canberra last week, had some discussions with them and intend to have further discussions with them next week when I return to Canberra for Parliament.
So I do think that there's scope to do more with respect to Gulf states. What shape or form that might look like, I guess I'll find out in due course.
I want to continue discussions, see now as a new Trade and Investment Minister, whether I'm able to forge ahead in perhaps some new paths in order to be able to bring our trade relationship up to a higher level.
EMMA ALBERICI: Now, opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership is now gathering pace in the United States, you're well aware. All the leading contenders for the presidency are now against it. Are you resigned to the fact that it is now highly unlikely to ever get up?
STEVEN CIOBO: No, I'm not resigned to that fact, Emma. I mean, look, politics can be an interesting beast sometimes, whether that's in Australia or in Europe or in the US. There are a number of factors.
And we also know that, of course, preceding any election there's a period of heightened activity and perhaps a little bit more fervour and a little bit more hot air than is necessarily the case after an election.
I was in the US just a little over a week ago; had the chance to meet with ambassador Froman who was, of course, President Obama's trade representative, trade ambassador; had a frank discussion with him about prospects in the United States; about what the Congress is likely to be looking at.
There's some concerns in the US Congress. That's been relayed to us. I know when former trade minister Andrew Robb was having negotiations: you know, Australia took a very firm line, especially around, for example, biologics.
But we've got a framework now that we believe serves the interests of all 12 negotiating countries, so we move through that process of seeking ratification domestically in each respective country.
EMMA ALBERICI: The leading Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has described the TPP as "a terrible deal". He’s also said it benefits CEOs of large multinational corporations, rather than workers and consumers.
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, I don't agree with that assessment. The TPP is good. It promotes more liberalised trade. It promotes freer trade. We were able, under the TPP, to get increased market access for Australian dairy producers, for Australian sugar producers: increased access into the US, into Japan, into Mexico, into Canada.
These are real concrete outcomes. I mean, these are commercially significant outcomes that Andrew Robb did as part of an outstanding approach that he undertook took when he was trade and investment minister.
And, you know, we hope that with the fullness of time, as I said, we'll see ratification in the US and that ultimately will see the agreement, we hope in time, come into place. And that's going to be great for Australian exporters.
EMMA ALBERICI: How concerned are you about the potential for a trade war erupting between the United States and China, given Mr Trump is vowing to slap a 45 per cent tariff on Chinese goods?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, there's as I said: in a pre-election period frequently there's all sorts of comments that are made. I think we just need to let the US political process play out. We'll see who the American people ultimately choose to be their President.
And let's not forget that there are, like the Australian system, check balances in place in the US as well. I mean, there's the presidential, the administration side of it and then there's the congressional side of it.
So, you know, I'm not going to work myself up into a fever pitch or anything like that. What's important is to have long-term approaches, work in the national interest for Australian exporters, work in the national interest for both those in manufacturing and agriculture, in services. These are all key exports for us and that's going to be the calm and considered approach that I bring to this portfolio.
EMMA ALBERICI: An increasing number of foreign politicians and diplomats are expressing alarm that Donald Trump's presidential campaign is taking the course that it is. In fact British Prime Minister David Cameron claims: "What Donald Trump says is not only wrong, but actually it makes the work we need to do to confront and defeat the extremists around the world more difficult." Do you agree?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, Donald Trump is a candidate for President. There's other candidates for President as well. I'm not going to focus in on any one particular thing that a candidate might say.
What matters ultimately is the actual position that's adopted by the US administration after the election. We know president Obama's position. He's a strong supporter of the TPP. He's been driving the TPP as much as he can domestically in the US. We want to build on that.
From an Australian perspective, the TPP is in our national interest. We think, for the 12 countries associated with the TPP, it's in our collective interests.
So we're very keen for that to be ratified in each of the respective countries' markets and, you know, look: I hope in the fullness of time that we'll see endorsement for it by the US as well.
EMMA ALBERICI: Turning to Australian domestic politics: earlier today you mentioned the budget is scheduled for May the 10th. Is that when it's going to be held?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, it's scheduled for the second Tuesday in May, Emma. As I said today, I have no doubt the budget will be brought down in May. We'll just have a look at what's going on.
EMMA ALBERICI: Is the Government actively considering a July 2nd election, given that would allow you to dissolve both houses of the Parliament and start again with a new Senate?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, you know, look: what we're committed to is governing in the national interest, Emma. Now there can be no doubt - and I think Australians overwhelmingly understand - that we have a situation at the moment with respect to the Senate, where we have some crossbench senators that are being elected off wafer-thin, very small primary votes; often less than 0.5 per cent.
What we need to do is make sure that we put in place reform that means that the Senate reflects the will of the Australian people. And I think Australians understand this. Certainly the ones that I speak with tell me that they like that we're proposing Senate reform. They like that the Senate would actually be representative of the will of the Australian people. So we're very committed to the Senate reform process.
But that's only one element among many others that the Coalition is focused upon. So I think we just walk our way, very calmly, towards the next election with a clear objective about what we want to present to the Australian people: both in terms of work that we've already done, but also in terms of our plans to take this country forward into the future.
EMMA ALBERICI: If you don't have an election on July 2nd, you will have to wait another four years before you get the Senate that might better represent, in your view, the Australian public's choice?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, maybe; maybe not. I mean, I'm not going to pre-empt what the outcome of a vote will be. But we are very committed to seeking Senate reform. We've got the bill and it's being debated currently in the House.
But, Emma, you know, these sort of, these are interesting things. I don't dispute that there's a lot of interest around the way in which our Senate will be composed and what might happen post the election. But I also want to reinforce that, as a Government, we've made a lot of big decisions.
Malcolm Turnbull has presided now over decisions that we've taken with respect to the Defence White Paper, which builds upon a complete dearth of any investment in the defence industry under the previous Labor government. We're moving forward with respect to tax reform. We're moving forward with respect to our national innovation and science agenda. We've got a lot of pieces that are being put in place now: building blocks for the future.
And that's part of the reason why the Prime Minister is so fond of saying and often quoted by journalists: you know, "It's an exciting time to be an Australian" - because it is. There's a lot of ground work that's being done now to set our nation up for the future, to drive jobs and to drive growth.
EMMA ALBERICI: Steve Ciobo, we'll leave it there. Thank you very much.
STEVEN CIOBO: Thank you.
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