DAVID SPEERS: First to the government's fortunes this week I spoke a short time ago to the Minister for Trade Steve Ciobo. Steve Ciobo thanks for joining us tonight. I am interested to get your thoughts on how this week has gone for the Government. You have lost a Senator, you have gained a more fired up Prime Minister it would seem. Has it been a good week from your perspective?

STEVEN CIOBO: Look I think it has been a good week. As a Government I think we have had a number of good weeks. We have got a strong legislative agenda that we were able to secure passage of last year and this year we are continuing on with our strong focus on things that actually matter to Australians and one of those is energy prices and just keeping the lights on.

DAVID SPEERS: And I want to come to that but Cory Bernardi’s defection right at the start of this year. Why do you really think he left?

STEVEN CIOBO: That's not for me to speculate on. I mean Cory has taken the decision -

DAVID SPEERS: You know the guy presumably.

STEVEN CIOBO: Well he thinks he can achieve more outside the Coalition than he thinks he can achieve inside of the Coalition. That's his choice to make. I frankly think it's a bad choice, the fact is that it's the Coalition that's in government and there will only ever be the Coalition or the Labor Party that's forming government over the foreseeable future.

DAVID SPEERS: You reckon he was always going to go? This was always on his mind?

STEVEN CIOBO: He's had a long track record of being someone who is happy to ventilate his grievances against his own Party, let’s put it that way. I haven't seen a strong track record of keeping the focus on the alternatives and what the problems are with Labor's approach. He has done that once or twice I'm not going to deny him that -

DAVID SPEERS: But he's a lot more -

STEVEN CIOBO: But over the long term he has been very focused on the faults on his own side.

DAVID SPEERS: His argument is that you lost a lot of conservative votes at the election; you have lost more since according to the polls. He wants to give then a principled, stable party that they can rally behind, rally and support. Do you get frustrated though when you see your own Government having given conservatives quite a bit, whether it is on climate change, gay marriage or whatever it happens to be and yet he's still gone.

STEVEN CIOBO: David we won the last Election.

DAVID SPEERS: Just.

STEVEN CIOBO: It doesn't matter. We won the last election. We are implementing a policy agenda that is consistent with what we took to the Australian people at the last Election. There will always be people who don't like some of our initiatives and that is their right in a democracy to do that, but as a Government we’re focused on delivering on our national economic plan, we’re focused on driving the economy, getting more jobs for Australians, growing export markets. That's what drives this Government, dealing with those cost of living pressures that Australian have.

DAVID SPEERS: As you know that is not being reflected in the polls. Then this week we see just yesterday the PM really fire up against Bill Shorten in the Parliament. It obviously buoyed the backbench, everyone loved it, was thumping the desks and cheering on. Will it make a difference in the electorate though in terms of how Malcolm Turnbull is viewed?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well you sort of ask me to crystal ball gaze. What I will say about Malcolm's speech is this, the Prime Minister's speech was a speech that was driven by the frustration on our side that Bill Shorten isn't being called out for being the hypocrite that he is. The Prime Minister made the very valid point that as a union leader this is a guy that spent a lot more time with his knees under the tables of billionaires than any union leader before him.

DAVID SPEERS: Just on that, is it a bad thing?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, but I think it says a lot about Bill Shorten's approach as Labor leader. What does Bill Shorten actually believe in? When you actually look at his transcripts, his track record, the comments he has made in the Parliament, you know, he railed about how important company tax cuts were for example, to boost workers wages, to grow the economy and how it would be good for Australia. He said that when he was last in government, now as Opposition Leader because he thinks he can maybe pick up a couple of extra votes or perhaps because he is beholden to the union movement, he says the exact opposite. It's the same thing with 457 Visas, Bill Shorten goes up there and says it is all about Australian jobs and he is going to work against 457 visas etcetera, yet when he was the minister and was actually was in the Labor Government at the time, he allowed record numbers of 457s and he expanded the visa category so -

DAVID SPEERS: Okay but in -

STEVEN CIOBO: This is what people are sick of.

DAVID SPEERS: In fairness your own leader, the Prime Minister has had different positions on climate change for example.

STEVEN CIOBO: Taken to the people though and that’s the big difference.

DAVID SPEERS: Whether we need a price on carbon.

STEVEN CIOBO: Taken to the people though.

DAVID SPEERS: Gay marriage, whether we need a free vote and all these things.

STEVEN CIOBO: But taken to the people and this is the key difference. If you say something and you take it to the electors for them to have their say on. Take for example gay marriage, we made it clear that we wanted to have a plebiscite and incidentally we are now well and truly into February. We would be a case of being only a week or so, or whatever the actual number of days is from having that vote, from every single Australian having their say, who is in a position to vote, and thus resolving this issue. This issue would be done now.

DAVID SPEERS: Just on that, because the plebiscite is not going to happen, that time has passed. Is it your understanding, or what is your understanding what the Party Room position now is?

STEVEN CIOBO: The Party Room position is that we were going to have a plebiscite.

DAVID SPEERS: But because that hasn't happened are you allowed a free vote?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well again we are getting into crystal ball gazing.

DAVID SPEERS: No, what is the position now?

STEVEN CIOBO: The Party Room position, what we took to the Australian people, was that we should have a plebiscite and that is still our position.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay so no one is allowed a free vote on this at the moment?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well we want to go to a plebiscite. You’re asking me to crystal ball gaze about what might happen, what I am saying to you is the Government’s agenda -

DAVID SPEERS: For the rest of the term, what's the Party's position?

STEVEN CIOBO: The Government's agenda is to have a plebiscite, that's what we wanted to give Australians the right to have their say on this very fundamental issue.

DAVID SPEERS: So if a Private Member’s Bill comes along you're not allowed a free vote on it?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well the Coalition by definition always has a free vote on every issue because Coalition members are allowed to cross the floor. We have seen that -

DAVID SPEERS: Just not frontbenchers?

STEVEN CIOBO: Of course, that's a -

DAVID SPEERS: And that's the difference.

STEVEN CIOBO: That's a valid point.

DAVID SPEERS: A free vote allows you to cross the floor, well not to cross the floor but to vote whichever way you want.

STEVEN CIOBO: Yeah but you know what David I know that this – but hang on, I want to make a point.

DAVID SPEERS: I am just wondering whether, what is the Party’s position right now?

STEVEN CIOBO: But I want to make a point about exactly what we are talking about here. You and I are now sitting down, talking about same sex marriage, okay. It's an issue. It's an important issue for some people but you know what, this is not a major order issue for the vast bulk of Australians so when you see the Prime Minister and blokes like me make the point about saying we think there’s a disconnect, it's because the things that we want to talk about are the things that matter to Australians. We have spent maybe 15 seconds talking about energy prices -

DAVID SPEERS: I know but if we can just get an answer.

STEVEN CIOBO: And then we have spent four or five minutes -

DAVID SPEERS: But if you can just get an answer.

STEVEN CIOBO: I have given you the answer three or four times.

DAVID SPEERS: So you don't ... The question was pretty simple, are you allowed a free vote now?

STEVEN CIOBO: You are asking and I have made clear to you -

DAVID SPEERS: It's either a yes or no isn't it?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, the Party Room position -

DAVID SPEERS: It's somewhere in the middle?

STEVEN CIOBO: No it's not, and you know it's not. The reason you know it's not is because it depends on what happens and the way in which the legislation comes before the Parliament and you know that. So with the greatest respect to you, you are a very good journalist, but you know that the answer is contingent upon what happens with the Parliament, but again to go back to the answer that I have already given you multiple times.

DAVID SPEERS: I don’t understand. Honestly I don't understand.

STEVEN CIOBO: The answer I have already given you multiple times. The Party Room position is a plebiscite and I have also made it clear that when it comes to the Coalition backbench every vote is a free vote because Coalition backbenchers are not expelled -

DAVID SPEERS: For backbenchers, okay.

STEVEN CIOBO: - from the party on those issues. But why don't we talk about what matter to Australians?

DAVID SPEERS: I don't want to get bogged down there, I don't know how we did end up there. Let me ask you about your portfolio.

STEVEN CIOBO: Sure.

DAVID SPEERS: Because you are in the hot seat in a lot of ways now with trade -

STEVEN CIOBO: Sure.

DAVID SPEERS: With Donald Trump having changed ‘the game’ in terms of global trade. We know he has withdrawn already from the TPP and when that happened a few weeks ago there was talk about trying to revive something from the remaining 11 members.

STEVEN CIOBO: Yes.

DAVID SPEERS: Has much happened on that in the last few weeks at all?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well a lot has happened. I've had conversations with the Canadians, with the Japanese, Malaysians, Singaporeans, New Zealanders, Mexicans –

DAVID SPEERS: With almost all of them. And what are they saying?

STEVEN CIOBO: Correct. And we've been having conversations about what the TPP achieved and whether we want to hang on to those gains or see them slide away. The general consensus is that we want to hold onto the gains. I mean, this was an agreement that took nearly nine years to negotiate and reach a point of agreement. The fact is that these regional deals are good deals because if you're a small to medium sized exporter, for example, you have one common set of rules that apply across all these countries. And bear in mind, for example, Canada and Mexico, we don't have free trade agreements in place with those countries.

DAVID SPEERS: So how do you get a hold onto those gains? What are you actually talking about? What's your preferred way?

STEVEN CIOBO: So on March the 15th, Chile is hosting a meeting bringing together all the TPP members. They've also invited China, and they've also invited -

DAVID SPEERS: All of them except the US?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, the United States has been invited as well.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay.

STEVEN CIOBO: And they've also invited China and have also invited the Pacific Alliance countries, that's countries like, for example, Colombia, to come together in Chile to be able to discuss what might be the best way forward. Because there's a strong feeling among many countries that we want to remain committed to promoting trade. Trade drives economic growth and it drives jobs.

DAVID SPEERS: So what's your argument going to be at that meeting?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, I will pursue the best outcomes for Australians, for Australian economy, for Australian workers that I possibly can. Our approach is to do that through bilateral agreements, plurilateral agreements, and multilateral agreements. Now, that all sounds very jargony. What I'm basically saying is that we're going to pursue trade agreements one-on-one with countries, as well as in regional blocks if we need to.

DAVID SPEERS: You're not bound to going for multilateral or bilateral, you'll take -

STEVEN CIOBO: Correct.

DAVID SPEERS: Whatever is in the best interest for Australia.

STEVEN CIOBO: Whatever is going to be the best interest of Australians and Australian workers.

DAVID SPEERS: Because you are also, separate to that process, talking to Indonesia I know at the moment. Where are those negotiations up to?

STEVEN CIOBO: So we announced last March the formal recommencement of negotiations on an FTA. As a Coalition Minister, I was very pleased to make that announcement. I've been engaging in a really constructive and proactive way with the Indonesians. I hope to conclude that deal this year. That was the timetable that we outlined last March. And we're really working toward that outcome.

DAVID SPEERS: So we'll get a trade deal finalised this year, do you think?

STEVEN CIOBO: Absolutely. That's the goal that I'm working toward.

DAVID SPEERS: Alright. Well that would be something to build on the deals we already have in place.

STEVEN CIOBO: Indeed.

DAVID SPEERS: Do you fear though, it's one thing to negotiate it, it seems it's another thing now to sell that to the Australian public. Because there is this growing, rising mood in the US, here in Australia as well, of protectionism.

STEVEN CIOBO: Sure.

DAVID SPEERS: That people aren't keen to see, in this case, cheaper Indonesian goods into our market.

STEVEN CIOBO: Well let's be clear on this, David. Because I think there's a lot of misconceptions around. The fact is that many Australians - not all - but many Australians recognise that as a country, part of the reason we've enjoyed 26 years of continuous economic growth - well we're into our 26th year - of continuous economic growth, is because of our exposure to trade. There are a lot of Australian businesses, and a lot of Australian farmers, and miners and others, who have really benefited as a result of us opening up export opportunities. And in fact, in December, we just had our largest trade surplus in recorded history - some 3.6 billion. We've generated a huge amount of exports from Australia. It was roughly $36, $37 billion worth of exports from our country. This is happening because we've been able to open up these markets. I'm going to continue opening up even further, new markets for Australia. And ultimately, do I need to be a salesman about how these are benefiting Australians? Of course I do. And I'm going to do that.

DAVID SPEERS: Do you think it's a tough environment in the Parliament, at least to sell these things?

STEVEN CIOBO: Yeah I think the answer to that question is, "It depends". And what I mean by that is there are some parliamentarians who will deliberately manipulate, ignore, the real facts about Australia's trade story. They will talk about, for example, a factory that closes down. They'll just focus on the closure of this factory, and they'll say, "This is all because of exposure to trade". But they'll never talk about the fact that one in five jobs is in relation to trade. They won't talk about the fact that we've had record trade surpluses. They won't talk about the fact that as a country we have enjoyed higher levels of national prosperity because we've been able to export Australian products. They won't talk about the fact that Boeing invested $1 billion and employed 1200 Australians in a new factory here as part of their advanced manufacturing initiatives that they're undertaking in this country. And so my answer when I say, "It depends", well, if people are honest about all the benefits that have flowed to Australia from trade, the argument is much more straightforward.

DAVID SPEERS: Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, good luck with all of that ahead. Thanks for joining us tonight.

STEVEN CIOBO: Thank you, pleasure.

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