TICKY FULLERTON: Meanwhile, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo is in Brisbane, having agreed a scoping exercise on the Australia-European Union free trade agreement. Well, I caught up with him a short time ago. Minister, thank you for joining us there. I guess the big news at the moment is these missile attacks on Syria in response to that atrocity. That's kind of overshadowing everything, isn't it?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, it is but understandably too, Ticky, I mean, the fact is that what the Assad regime has done over the past couple of days was truly barbaric. It was horrific. It deserved a response like this, quite frankly, and Australia stands behind the United States in what is a very proportional, calibrated and appropriate strike.

TICKY FULLERTON: Could it escalate? I guess that's the problem, isn't it?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, this has been an area of conflict for quite some time. I'm not in the business of crystal ball gazing. In politics we have to deal with the terrain as it presents itself. It comes down to this fundamental threshold question though: is the Western world prepared to stand by while we see a murderous regime use chemical weapons on its own people? And the unequivocal answer from the United States, from Australia and from others is no, we are not.

TICKY FULLERTON: Now, in the meantime, obviously, President Donald Trump has a very big meeting with Xi Jinping, the Chinese President. A lot of talk about what might happen with trade between the two nations. So often when you have a big trade conversation, it gets overshadowed by something geopolitical. Is it likely to impact those discussions?

STEVEN CIOBO: Look I think with respect to the United States and China on trade, everyone is familiar with the issues. Everyone knows what the issues are and what some of the common areas of interest are and what some of the conflict points are. I don't believe that something like this is going to in any way, shape or form change the engagement between the United States and China on this issue. There's issues there to be resolved, to be discussed, and I think it's good that President Xi Jinping and President Trump have the ability to come together to discuss these issues.

TICKY FULLERTON: Okay, so Donald Trump has said, quote, "We've been treated unfairly and have made terrible trade deals with China for many, many years". Sitting here as the Australian Trade Minister, what would be a nightmare scenario for us?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well Ticky, you'll understand if I'm probably not going to go down the - not walk through the door that you opened for me. What I am going to say is that as Australia's Trade, Tourism, and Investment Minister, my focus is upon doing good trade deals for Australia. Now obviously, people will look around the world at the global trading environment and make decisions about what they see is happening, and make calls about what they're going to do in response or in anticipation of events as they unfold. Fundamentally, Australia's interests are well served by a couple of principles. One, opening up more export markets for Aussie exporters to get products and services into, which we know underpins our economic growth and helps to drive employment. The second thing is -

TICKY FULLERTON: But if trade falls down between the US and China, that surely is going to impact us quite a lot, isn't it?

STEVEN CIOBO: It's based on the presumption and the assertion you made was ‘if’. We've got to see what happens, as I said. I'm not in the business of crystal ball gazing. I'm going to deal with the terrain as it presents itself. We will continue to open up more markets for Aussie exporters, driving economic growth, driving job opportunities, diversifying the countries with which we have an excellent trading relationship, because obviously, the more eggs that we have in more baskets, the better it is for our nation.

TICKY FULLERTON: This seems to be the new game in town. A lot of bilateral dealing being done all around the world at the moment. Now the latest thing is your Australia-European free trade agreement. You've got your scoping structure agreed. Baby steps, though I would say.

STEVEN CIOBO: I wouldn't call it baby steps. I'd call it a pretty fundamental first step. What we've been able to secure in 18 months, I mean that's almost a record amount of time, in terms of being quite quick, was a comprehensive scoping study. I was really pleased after speaking with EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström recently, that we're able to finalise off the back of negotiations between her and I the final steps of the scoping paper. Now, this is going to be the document that helps to shape the mandate that I received from my cabinet, from our cabinet about what it is that Australia wants to achieve in an EU-Australia free trade agreement. For the Europeans, it will be a chance for them to have a say on what's going to shape their asks and their bids with respect to an EU-Australia free trade agreement, so it's a very important first step.

TICKY FULLERTON: What does it say about Brexit in there, because obviously, I've been reading that Australia's biggest two-way trade in services partner is Europe, and yet two fifths of that services trade is with the UK. Now is the UK part of Europe in this agreement, or is it not? What sort of allowances have been made in that scoping brief?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well the UK is part of Europe until such time as they formally exit. They'll remain part of Europe for the next two years, and so of course, they'll be part of the European process, but by the same token, they're also exiting. And we know that in two years’ time the UK will no longer be part of Europe. That's precisely why, Ticky, I've engaged with Liam Fox, the Secretary of State from the UK, my counterpart, to talk about putting in place arrangements for an Australia-UK free trade agreement. We've already established a joint working group between our two governments. We're already making excellent progress around preliminary discussions on what an FTA might look like between Australia and the UK -

TICKY FULLERTON: That must dramatically colour your agreement with Europe given the sorts of arguments that are going on now between Europe and Britain?

STEVEN CIOBO: Not at all. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. The fact is that we can engage in good faith, negotiate, push for a win-win outcome with the Europeans, and I'm very comfortable to be able to do that. And by the same token, we're having that conversation with the UK to achieve the exact same outcome. It's not a zero sum game. It's not a case of you can only do one thing at a time. We've got good people, people that are able to pursue these conversations in parallel, and that's precisely what we're doing.

TICKY FULLERTON: Okay. Just going to the Prime Minister's speech last night at the Sydney Institute, I thought it was very interesting how much time he spent talking about India, and his upcoming trip, particularly in relation to trade, particularly, possibly, a lot of talk about the Adani coal mine, and the Government's support for it.

STEVEN CIOBO: Well we're very focused on boosting trade ties with India. You'd be aware, of course, that we have undertaken, commenced free trade agreement negotiations between Australia and India. We're currently undertaking a stock take of where those negotiations are. In other words, what we're doing is seeing where each side is with respect to the different offers that have been put  -

TICKY FULLERTON: That's slowed things down a bit, hasn't it?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well I think it's an important breather. Let's call it that, an important breather. And this is an opportunity for us to focus. Trade deals, Ticky, are not always straightforward. We've seen, for example, the Coalition concluded the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, but that had been under discussion for quite a number of years. Now I'm determined to make sure that we do a trade deal with India, but let me also be very clear, I want to make sure that it's a good trade deal. I'm not just trying to score runs on the board and not care about the content of it. We've got to make sure that we keep the horse in front of the cart. And in this case, the horse is making sure it's a high quality, good agreement that suits our purposes, and suits, of course, India's purposes too.

TICKY FULLERTON: I don't know what the horse and cart thing is in terms of Adani, but the Indians must be sort of wringing their hands as to how long this is going to go on. I mean there's been an awful lot of money, Indian money put into that project, and yet it's still kind of up in the air.

STEVEN CIOBO: Look, Adani is understandably very frustrated. We have spoken time and time again as a Government about some of our concerns around what we would describe as greenmail. No one disputes for one second, Ticky, that we need to make sure that all the appropriate environmental safeguards are taken into account. Of course we do. No one's wanting to sell off a clean, green future for Australia, but we also need to make sure that we don't become completely bogged down in process around appeal after appeal after appeal, and people being able in particular, green groups being able to slide different sorts of legal contrivances into a decision, or appealing a decision to slow this down. I mean, it's unacceptable. It needs to be addressed.

TICKY FULLERTON: But is the Prime Minister going to receive a bit of pressure from the Indian Government on this front, do you think?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well I'm probably the wrong person to ask that question to. That's probably better directed toward the Indian Government, but I think everyone knows that the Australian Government is committed to making this happen. We think it's high time that the Queensland Government stepped up, and that we saw less greenmail and more job-creating, economy-growing projects like this take place.

TICKY FULLERTON: Minister Steve Ciobo, thank you very much for joining me.

STEVEN CIOBO: Good to speak with you.

Media enquiries

  • Trade Minister's Office: (02) 6277 7420
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555