KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me live now, here in Washington is the Trade Minister, Steven Ciobo. Thanks for your time.
STEVEN CIOBO: Good to be with you.
KIERAN GILBERT: The Prime Minister talking up the impact of the US tax cuts in order to extend that to the Australian debate. There are, obviously some parallels, but the two economies are very different aren’t they?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I wouldn’t say he’s talking it up, what we’re actually learning about the actual lived experience here in the United States, where as we know, the Trump Administration has put a particular focus as has the Congress on reducing the corporate tax rate in the United States. We’ve seen big economic dividends that flow from that for the United States. I mean, that obviously has direct parallels to Australia. Although the composition of our economies is different, the fact is that the United States’ experience would parallel in many respects to the Australian experience, which just reinforces why, as a Government, we’re determined to reduce the overall tax burden on Australians, because we know it leads to more economic growth and more employment.
KIERAN GILBERT: It’s interesting as Trade Minister though, you support the Trump Administration’s approach on tax cuts for business but you’d be very nervous about some of his views when it comes to trade, wouldn’t you?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I mean, I think what matters most is what the United States administration actually does on trade. We’ve seen, for example, in the WTO meeting, the World Trade Organisation meeting in Buenos Aires last year, the United States come on board with an initiative that we were able to lead as Australia, together with Japan and Singapore, on e-commerce. Terrific step in the right direction, helped to signal that the US was willing to engage in a multilateral type of environment. Ultimately, what we’re all focused on, is about ensuring that we pursue trade deals that are, in our case, in Australia’s national interest, and in the US, in the US’s national interest, that’s what drives us.
KIERAN GILBERT: Is there any hope that Mr. Trump might re-join the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal? Do you hold out any hope of that?
STEVEN CIOBO: I think hope is certainly the word.
KIERAN GILBERT: Will you raise it with your US counterparts over the next few days?
STEVEN CIOBO: I will and I have previously. I was particularly pleased to see President Trump make remarks in Davos earlier this year that indicated that the door was cracked open in terms of potentially having the US re-join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and let’s not forget Kieran, Australia together with Japan, really spearheaded pursuit of what is now the TPP-11 because this is a trade deal that represents $13.7 trillion worth of economic activity. This is giving Australian exporters a rail’s run in terms of new market access. New free trade agreements with Canada and with Mexico, countries with whom we’ve not had market access before, through a free trade agreement, so this is about driving economic growth and driving jobs-
KIERAN GILBERT: It’s got bigger implications too, doesn’t it, in terms of strategic-
STEVEN CIOBO: Look I see commentary around that, I see commentary around that I’m not going to sort of flip now and become a political commentator on it, what I want to do is make sure that Australian exporters have the very best opportunities to be as competitive as possible, because if we drive exports, we drive growth and jobs.
KIERAN GILBERT: But as the Prime Minister pointed out, this is, he didn’t say it was a rival to the Chinese-led approach, through its various infrastructure and trade mechanisms in the region. But what he did point out, very clearly, was the fact that this is rules-based, that the-
STEVEN CIOBO: Sure.
KIERAN GILBERT: -secure investment that can be made within this TPP, led by Japan, and Australia and Canada and others-
STEVEN CIOBO: Absolutely.
KIERAN GILBERT: - but that’s a clear contrast with the Chinese approach?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, not at all. That is absolutely not the case. We have, as part of APEC, a broad ambition to put in place a free trade agreement across the Asia-Pacific. You know, Australia sits well-placed. We’ve now got the TPP-11 agreement done and what we’re also pursuing right now is what’s called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a convoluted titled, but basically an important potential trade deal that includes the ASEAN countries, plus Australia, South Korea, New Zealand, India, so another very big, important regional trading bloc. Now, if we can have the TPP, and we can have RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership-
KIERAN GILBERT: You’d be very happy with that as well?
STEVEN CIOBO: I mean, that that is a fantastic outcome.
KIERAN GILBERT: With Donald Trump, the people that I’ve been speaking to in Washington the last 24 hours, in this area, alluding to a very likely new round of tariffs on aluminium and steel. This is risking a trade war with China isn’t it?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well the US has taken a decision, a certain report’s gone from the Commerce Secretary to the White House and that report outlines several courses of action that the President could choose to adopt with respect to steel and aluminium. The important point to realise is this, Kieran, if you impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminium now, one it affects Australian exports to the United States, and obviously for me as Australia’s Trade Minister it’s something I’m very mobilised on, very focused on, I’ve already had a number of conversations with my counterpart. The Prime Minister raised it directly with the President at the G20 meeting.
KIERAN GILBERT: He says he’s going to raise it again on Saturday.
STEVEN CIOBO: Of course. Of course we will.
KIERAN GILBERT: Will we be exempt again?
STEVEN CIOBO: We will always stand up for Australian interests.
KIERAN GILBERT: You will ensure we will be exempt from those?
STEVEN CIOBO: We will always stand up for Australian interests. So we make no apologies about the fact that we are going to purse what is good for Australian businesses. But the point is this though Kieran, if they impose tariffs in the United States, and we don’t know ultimately what they will do. But if they were to do that, it’s, what it’s doing is increasing business costs for US businesses, which makes them less competitive. But look, time will tell what they ultimately decide to do.
KIERAN GILBERT: How much more scope for growth is there in terms of US-Australia trade relations? I’m thinking more in terms of this Governors’ Association meeting this weekend.
STEVEN CIOBO: Sure.
KIERAN GILBERT: Forty-plus Governors, four of our Premiers, two Chief Ministers, yourself, the Prime Minister. It’s a big delegation, what do you want out of it?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, it’s a really senior delegation and in many respects that represents the fact that this is, you know, a very broad and deep trading and investment relationship. People often forget that the United States is actually the biggest source of foreign investment into Australia. So we have a really rich history of trading and investing in each other’s economies. The real opportunity here also lays, not only with respect to the TPP and the work the Prime Minister’s been doing around defence, but also what we can do around infrastructure. I mean, Australia has an incredible track record around public/private partnership, the design, the construction, the management, the financing of infrastructure; we can share that experience with the Americans. They’ve got a big agenda, a bold agenda around infrastructure, Australia should be at the front of the queue in terms of trying to do deals.
KIERAN GILBERT: Now finally, you said the analysis of Tony Abbott’s was ‘lazy’ in terms of just cutting immigration as he has asserted. He’s fired back, he says ‘no one denies the fact that migrants have brought prosperity’, he’s written in The Australian today. He says, ‘Steve Ciobo, that does not mean that immigration must always add a city the size of Adelaide every five years,’ is the question he put. What’s your response to that?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, my comments were about the arguments being lazy and inaccurate. The reason being, and quite ostensibly Kieran, you cannot have a situation where you try to pretend that immigration is the reason why we see an increase in house prices, when the fact is the increase in house prices is, in many respects, largely confined to Melbourne and to Sydney. You’ve got other markets around Australia where the price is falling, you’ve got very modest gains in markets including, for example, the South East corner of Queensland. So let’s not pretend this is about the numbers of immigrants. The fact is Australia is a richer country because of immigration. Immigrants have been, in many respects, driving, together with Australians that have been here for two, three, or four generations, driving the prosperity our country has. And, Kieran, let’s never forget one fundamentally important thing, in this day and age, the real economic growth of the future will come from new technologies, will come from the investment in the development of new intellectual property, and that all comes from people. That’s driven by people. We have got to make sure that we remain competitive at attracting people to Australia.
KIERAN GILBERT: Mr Abbott says he’s ‘not going to cop criticism, gratuitous criticism, from Ministers who are only in Government because I led them there’. He’s not happy.
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, I’m not interested in getting involved in a tit-for-tat with the former Prime Minister. I made it very clear yesterday, I welcome the debate. I’m certainly not going to just roll over when I hear comments made about immigrants and immigration, which frankly, I think are inaccurate and I make no apology for that.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister Ciobo, thanks for your time, appreciate it.
STEVEN CIOBO: Good to speak with you.
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