PATRICIA KARVELAS: As Britain continues to hammer out the details of its exit from the EU, and other countries adapt to President Trump's decision to nix the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Australia's Government is hoping to capitalise on the new trade landscape.
Steve Ciobo is the Minister for Trade and Investment and he's flying to Japan this morning hoping to secure more export opportunities for Australian businesses. Welcome to RN Breakfast.
STEVEN CIOBO: Good morning, Patricia.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Australia signed a free trade agreement with Japan, the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement, back in 2014. At the time, Labor accused the Government of reaching a deal with Japan for the sake of an announcement saying it fell well short of what Australia should've had. Is this trip to Japan an attempt to get a better deal to fill in some of those gaps?
STEVEN CIOBO: No, not at all and it's typical of the Labor Party, which didn't start and didn't deliver any FTAs when they were in Government. The fact is if you look at the Japan-Australia free trade agreement, it's doing terrific work for Australia. It's serving our national interest well. We've seen really big increases in a number of key commodities that are being exported. For example, and this is one of the headline statements we use: between 2014 and 2016, Australian table grapes have increased in exports by some 5000 per cent.
Now, I'm not going to, of course, deny that that was off a relatively low base, but the point is we've created a whole new export market and when you speak to local federal members like Andrew Broad, he'll tell you about how exceedingly well his grape growers are doing now because they've got access to a key export market like Japan.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: This week's delegation includes business leaders from a range of industries, including health and financial services and, of course, financial services being a huge opportunity for Australia. Are there specific opportunities that have been identified there that you plan to pursue this week?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, what this comes down to is a strategy that I've got and the Government’s pursuing, which is to boost our services exports, Patricia. Services accounts for about 75 per cent of the Australian economy. Roughly four out of every five jobs is in services industries and yet it's only 22 per cent of our exports. What I want to make sure we do is be able to export Australian services to the world. So it's not just about iron ore and coal, it's not just about agri-products, it's also about great Aussie services. So that's why we've got to focus, for example, on this trip around health services and financial services.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Japan is certainly getting a good deal on Australian gas at the moment with Japanese customers paying less for gas pumped in the Bass Strait than people in Victoria. Is there any political solution to what seems to be a failure of the market in this sense?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, it's not a failure of the market, it's a failure of government policy, as far as I'm concerned, at a state government level. These moratoriums that are effect, just sheer madness. They are resulting in Australia losing domestic supply of gas and it's just a crazy situation. We simply cannot tolerate a situation where Australian gas supplies are dwindling because of prohibitions on extracting that gas, and yet we allow a situation to exist where we are exporting that gas.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was in India and he confirmed that sealing an FTA with India would take some time, that it was nowhere near cooked. It was meant to be signed back in 2015, of course. Now, tariffs are a major sticking point, as is labour mobility. Is that something you'd be willing to negotiate on in order to get the deal over the line, particularly this issue of labour mobility?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, we're having a good look at the situation with respect to India. Certainly, what India's asking goes well beyond anything that Australia has done, in terms of any FTAs that we have put in place, and we're not willing to go to that extent. Certainly, I want to have a look at what it is that India is offering with respect to goods exports.
From my perspective, I want to make sure that Australia's national interest is well served, which means doing a deal that's good for Australia and not just doing a deal to get one over the line, if it's not serving our national interest well.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: The US military has confirmed that the North Korean missile exploded on launch, but the type of missile is not yet known. North Korea warned the United States that any provocation would be met with retaliation. We know that this is the biggest story in the world. Are you worried about the rising tensions on the Korean peninsula?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, this has been a source of some concern for a number of years now and so, on that basis, we need to, of course, be diligent and we need to make sure that we've got a clear-eyed vision about what it is that we're trying to achieve.
Now, we cannot allow North Korea to continue to build a nuclear arsenal without, in any way, shape or form, there being a watchful eye cast on them and indeed, in my view, they should be stopped. Now, how that's achieved, the mechanisms that are best used, clearly the United States is leading the case for that and it will require the support of China. China is a key player in all of this, so I think we just need to keep a wary eye on developments on the Korean peninsula.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Does it concern you that this could become a military conflict? Obviously, that would put the region at some significant risk.
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, Patricia, you never want military conflict, ideally, and that would always be the very last option that any government, that any democracy would ever choose to go down. So am I concerned about it? Yes. But by the same token you don't avoid military conflict at all times and at all costs, especially if it means that you allow rogue regimes to build up arsenal, to build up capability that, in fact, actually jeopardises millions of lives. We need to be very realistic about how we approach this and the way in which we do it.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Steve Ciobo is my guest on RN Breakfast. He's the Minister for Trade and Investment.
Just finally, former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, says voters think Bill Shorten will soon be in The Lodge. Is he right? Is that what voters are saying?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I'm certainly making sure that that's not the case. When I speak to voters in my electorate, Patricia, they talk to me about how they are very frustrated that the Australian Labor Party doesn't have a plan. The Australian Labor Party just says no to every reform the Government tries to put in place. They are completely pre-occupied with taxing more and spending more –
PATRICIA KARVELAS: So, my question, sorry. My question was about Tony Abbott's assessment. Are you saying Tony Abbott's assessment of how voters are feeling is wrong?
STEVEN CIOBO: No, I'm telling you the assessment that I get from my electorate. When I speak to people here on the Gold Coast, people that are predominantly in the services industries, by the way, especially in respect of education services and tourism services, that's the expression that they use with me with respect to the Opposition Leader, which is what you asked me about.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: I asked you about Tony Abbott, though, saying something which is extraordinary really, as a former Prime Minister, effectively saying the Government is on the path to spectacular defeat. He's produced a five point plan, some ideas for how you could turn it around. Will you implement his ideas? Things like abolishing the Human Rights Commission, embracing Senate reform to end deadlocks. Are they the kind of ideas you should be embracing?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, of course, I'm a member of a Government that's already reformed the Senate. We put through reforms in the Senate, which we took to the last election, and I think we'll see the benefits of those reforms flow through at the next federal election.
Look, it comes down to this. Ultimately, Australians have a choice between Bill Shorten as Prime Minister and Labor's approach of taxing more and spending more, or Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister with a prudent approach, one that balances appropriately the –
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But what I asked you, what do you think of Tony Abbott's five point plan? Is it a plan that you think should be implemented?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I'm saying a number of those things have already been implemented.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: No, the Senate reform he talks about would lead to a referendum. It would change, fundamentally, the way that –
STEVEN CIOBO: But we've already reformed the Senate, Patricia, that's my point.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: But you haven't reformed it the way he's suggesting, Steve Ciobo. It's a different suggestion and we shouldn't confuse listeners, because they have very different propositions. I'm asking you do you think you should embrace the reform that he's suggesting?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, I mean, ultimately, every backbencher will raise policy ideas. Those will be discussed in Party Room. They have the opportunity to be considered by the Party as a whole and for the Party to take a decision about which reforms, or, indeed, any initiatives that we will take forward.
Now, I wouldn't say to any backbencher, "No, that's a bad idea." Every backbencher has a right to put in their view. That's exactly how our system works and I encourage every backbencher to keep contributing to the arsenal of policy ideas that the Coalition Government has.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: He's a former Prime Minister, he's not just a backbencher. He gets more attention, as is clearly the case. I'm asking you questions and part of those not that he's just a backbencher, it's that he's a former Prime Minister. His interventions, do you find them helpful?
STEVEN CIOBO: I don't get overly concerned about the interventions of former Prime Ministers or backbenchers or others. From my perspective, I think Australians have a very clear-eyed vision about what it is, that the choices are that the Government's undertaking and the Opposition is proposing.
Now, they know very well, that as a Coalition Government, what we are putting in place are a number of reforms to our parliamentary process, are a number of reforms to the way in which the Australian budget operates. We've reduced the tax burden on small businesses to drive economic growth and to –
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Sure, you might have done all those things, but Tony Abbott says – and he's been on his bike tour around the country, something he does for charity every year, the Pollie Pedal, well known – that he's hearing from the public that they're sick of politicians and sick of your Government.
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, here's a little bit of insight. I've been in politics for more than 15 years, Patricia. I've never, in that 15 years, known the Australian public to love politicians, but never in those 15 years felt that there's been this overwhelming tide of people going, "Thank God Australia's got politicians."
Look, there is always a view among the Australian public – and you know, an appropriate level of cynicism sometimes, I think, about what it is that governments are doing of either persuasion. Now, I think it's stating the obvious to say, "Well, Australians don't like politicians." Well, that may be the case. But, ultimately, Australia's governance, our parliamentarians of all political persuasions have served our country relatively well. Each election is an opportunity for Australians to make a choice between how they want their country to go forward and it comes down, if you distil it down to its most basic elements, it comes down to a choice between Labor's big taxing, big spending approach, or the Coalition's approach of taxing less, reducing overheads and, as a consequence, getting Australia into a healthier fiscal position.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: Steve Ciobo, good luck on your trip to Japan.
STEVEN CIOBO: Thanks very much, Patricia.
PATRICIA KARVELAS: And that's the Minister for Trade and Investment, Steve Ciobo, joining us on RN Breakfast this morning.
- Trade Minister's Office: (02) 6277 7420
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555