RISHAAD SALAMAT: Today recalling Parliament ahead of schedule for the Budget session. Let's get more. Let's get over to Sydney. Joining us from there is Australia's new Trade Minister, here's Steven Ciobo, sir. Mr. Ciobo thank you very much today for joining us. Well, so you're going to go early this year? Second of July? Confident that's going to be the date of the election?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, no we'll see what happens. Ultimately what the Prime Minister has done is given the Senate the opportunity to make a decision about that. What's clear is that the Government has a fixed agenda, we want to see structural reform around the construction industry, this is about a third of the economy in terms of its contribution, employs around a million people, and we've seen since the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which is effectively an umpire of sorts around trade union militancy in the construction industry, we've seen since that was abolished in the previous Government that the level of industrial disputation has gone up by 34 per cent. So, we want to give the Senate the opportunity to pass these reforms.
RISHAAD SALAMAT: There could be a game of bluff being played by your Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, here as well. If we do get a double dissolution, would that be a surprise to you?
STEVEN CIOBO: No, it wouldn't be a surprise, but ultimately the decision about whether Australia heads to the polls for a double dissolution election is a decision that will be taken by the Australian Senate. We have given them ample opportunity now, with Parliament resuming again on the 18th of April, for them to have ample opportunity to discuss and debate the merits of the Australian Building and Construction Commission which is, as I said, effectively an umpire on the construction industry. They can either respect the mandate that the Government has to reintroduce the ABCC. As I said, industrial disputation is up 34 per cent since it was abolished. This is an important body and when it was last in place we saw productivity gains in the construction sector of more than 20 per cent. So there's a lot of merit, especially with this Government's very strong focus upon driving investment and infrastructure. If we don't want to see a blowout in costs on productive infrastructure rolling out across the Australian economy, then we've got to get reform within the construction industry.
RISHAAD SALAMAT: How are the talks going with the minor parties and indeed some of these independent candidates? Or, independent members I should say.
STEVEN CIOBO: We continue to discuss and engage with them on a regular basis. We've put through Senate reform, we've got a strong agenda as we continue to see the Australian economy transition away from its heavy reliance on resources and energy, and increasingly move towards innovative adoption of new technologies and new opportunities for employment in the new economy. That's laid at the core of the Government's $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda. We talk to the crossbench, we speak to the minor parties about these matter, what we want to see happen is reform that we have a mandate to implement. We want that reform to not be blocked needlessly, but rather to be introduced.
RISHAAD SALAMAT: Minister, a final question on this, and very, very quickly. Yourself, would you prefer to go earlier than later when it comes to a general election?
STEVEN CIOBO: I think what matters the most actually is what ultimately is going to be in the public's best interest. The Government is absolutely dogged in our pursuit of this reform. We had a mandate from the last election to implement this reform, we're going to pursue this reform. I would simply call on the Australian Senate to respect the wishes of the Australian people. Let's get productivity enhancing reforms in place in the construction industry, a key economic driver, and consistent with the emphasis that we're putting upon our transitioning economy.
RISHAAD SALAMAT: Let's get to your job. You've been Trade Minister now, what since September or thereabouts, and Andrew Robb was a regular visitor on this show. Now, the thing is, it's all been about free trade agreements. There have been a lot of them signed under his tenure, you're confident looking forward that you can achieve the same sort of frenetic pace of signing those agreements?
STEVEN CIOBO: Australia has a very strong track record when it comes to free trade and liberalised trade. I'm certainly not intending to take my foot off the accelerator when it comes to engaging with the world. I continue to have a strong focus, in fact I was pleased to meet with the Indonesian Trade Minister, Minister Lembong, only last week and to formally declare the recommencement of discussions around a comprehensive economic partnership agreement with Indonesia. Indonesia is one of Australia's closest neighbours and of course should be a very significant trade investment partner for Australia. So we're recommencing those discussions. I’m having some informal discussions with GCC countries, that is with Gulf States countries. I’m having discussions and looking at opportunities also in relation to other multilateral opportunities such as a regional comprehensive economic partnership. I intend to continue a very frenetic pace when it comes to opportunities for Australia to engage with the world.
RISHAAD SALAMAT: Minister, what about the Aussie dollar? That's certainly improved your terms of trade, hasn't it? When does Australian business actually see more benefit from that?
STEVEN CIOBO: We've seen as part of that transition from, as I said, resource and energy focus towards more transitioning to new economy and new innovative approaches, that the Aussie dollar has helped. Of course we've seen the Aussie bounce back a little bit, with some of the weakness in the green back more recently. Ultimately how that will play out we don't know. What we want to do is make sure we put in place the policy settings that are going to enable Australian businesses to be as competitive as possible, that might mean that in the long run the Aussie trends back towards its normal level, but these are forces that are outside direct Government control. We'll make policy decisions that we think are in our national interest and what will be with respect –
RISHAAD SALAMAT: Minister, let's just talk a little bit very briefly about the slowdown in China. How badly do you think it’s affecting your economy?
STEVEN CIOBO: I don't think it's bad. What we're continuing to see, and we're seeing a bit of a bounce back on commodity stock prices, that's obviously long term interest for Australia. But Australia now has $160 billion worth of two way trade with China. Our engagement with China is broad, but we're also looking at broadening our relationship with a number of other countries. We're continuing to see opportunities, particularly in relation to Japan and Korea which are coming to the forefront now off the back of the free trade agreements that we've done. I, of course, am watching closely domestic US debate around the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I'm very hopeful that the TPP will go through in the US congress this year. If we see that happen, that's going to continue to help with Australia's diversification of our economy and opportunities for trade and investment.
RISHAAD SALAMAT: Minister, thank you very much indeed for that. That's the minister of trade in Australia, Steven Ciobo joining us now from Sydney.
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