TOM CONNELL: Well, our first interview of the day today is Trade Minister Steve Ciobo. Thanks for your time today.
STEVEN CIOBO: Good to be with you.
TOM CONNELL: I do want to get into trade, but just to cover this off, I found it interesting yesterday, the Ministerial Code inquiry into this has been dropped. Barnaby Joyce is no longer a minister, but Matthew Canavan is, why not go ahead with this?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well look, ultimately, the Prime Minister's determination that clearly there's no case with respect to Barnaby. I think it's appropriate the Prime Minister looks at whether or not people are complying with the Ministerial Code. I mean, I think that's to be expected, and there should be no surprises this, in summary.
TOM CONNELL: But the code, this inquiry within PM&C is being dropped. There's still a separate one into his expenses. Doesn't there need to still be an investigation, even if he's not a minister you still need to know if it's being breached or even if it's being breached to do with Matthew Canavan who's still a minister.
STEVEN CIOBO: Of course. I mean Matthew Canavan has made it perfectly clear the situation that took place. The suggestion that there's any problem there is completely false.
TOM CONNELL: Yet, an inquiry before was needed. Now it's not, just because Barnaby's gone, but Matthew –
STEVEN CIOBO: No, no, you're running two completely separate things.
TOM CONNELL: But the inquiry was launched?
STEVEN CIOBO: You're running two entirely separately things together. One was in relation to Barnaby's position and that has resolved itself now with his decision to not stay as leader of the National Party. The second is in relation to the circumstances that Matt Canavan had around employment of a staff member, and that's been dealt with comprehensively.
TOM CONNELL: Okay. On the Barnaby matter, it's been dealt with in terms of him not being a Minister anymore. The voters still need to know if the code's been breached.
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, you know, I don't think the voters are concerned about some trolling through the entrails after the fact that Barnaby Joyce has resigned and stood down as leader. I mean, that is in politics, the ultimate price that you pay. So you know, what actually voters care about is what's happening on jobs. What's happening on economic growth? What's happening on taxes? What's the plan for the future? How are we going to deal with cost of living? That's actually what voters care about. This kind of stuff that, you know, people obsess about is fra- I mean I was amazed, Tom, yesterday we saw in question time, the Labor Party stand up and ask question after question after question about this type of what is, frankly, garbage and completely ignore what matters to ordinary Australians. It just highlights a Labor Party that is so obsessed with trying to play politics and not in the least bit focused on what actually matters to everyday Australians who are basically trying to make sure that they can keep up with the cost of living. That they can make sure that their kids have a good education and job. That's what the Government's focused on. I think the Labor Party should focus on it too.
TOM CONNELL: I know your focus is on the Trans-Pacific Partnership amongst other things.
STEVEN CIOBO: Sure.
TOM CONNELL: Signing ceremony coming up on March 8. With that, and the recent indications from the US they might be open in some way to re-joining, presumably this has to stay as is. You can't afford to renegotiate the crux of the deal given how fraught this has been.
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, look, you're exactly right. I mean so the simple fact is that we've done this deal now between the 11 countries, as we called it the TPP-11. That agreement's there, it's on the table. It's a really good agreement and in fact, it largely mirrors the original agreement that included the United States. What we did was suspend the operation of certain provisions that really represented the interests of the United States, because obviously if they're not in it, why would we leave that in the deal? So they've been suspended, but the balance of the deal, which is a really good deal, going to be great for Australia's economy, great for Australian jobs, great for Australian exports, that's all there. We're going to sign the agreement on March the 8th and it's going to make Australia a richer and more economically sustainable and stronger country.
TOM CONNELL: So those elements can be re-enacted if you like if the US joins holus-bolus, but the more likely situation seems to be they might do some one-to-one deals. Is that your next job? Has that already started?
STEVEN CIOBO: I mean, you’re sort of asking me to crystal ball gaze. Look, I don't know what the United States is going to do. Obviously in time we'll see what the administration decides to do. I've got a really strong working relationship with the United States trade representative, USTR Bob Lighthizer. He's basically my counterpart. He and I we work very strongly together, consistent with the great relationship between the US and Australia. In the fullness of time, they will make a decision about what they chose to do. We have the biggest trade agenda that Australia's ever seen. You know we've just, we're about to sign the TPP-11, we've just concluded a deal with Peru. We have deals underway with India, with Indonesia, with Hong Kong, with the Pacific Alliance countries, with the European Union, with the UK, so we've got a lot happening in this trade space. The reason we've got a lot happening is 'cause we know one fundamental thing. If we grow trade, we grow a richer country and we create employment.
TOM CONNELL: Right. Just on this though, would the theory be, without committing to what's going to happen, you take the crux of this agreement and try to get the US to sign up to it? 'cause this stuff takes so long as you know, it's so complicated. Is this still the starting point and you hope you can get a little one-on-one done with the US?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well, we already have a one-to-one in terms of bilateral FTA, obviously, between Australia and the United States. Yeah, it remains our desire that the US comes back to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We've kept all of the bait, for lack of a better term, in the deal, like all the things that they would be interested in, so there's incentive for them to come back.
TOM CONNELL: 'Cause it's not just trade for them, they want to just set the rules. It was seen as this-
STEVEN CIOBO: But that's all still there. This is the thing. I mean it is a comprehensive trade deal. It's a really good trade deal.
TOM CONNELL: All right, you left the US and the reports were that despite some lobbying of Donald Trump, we don't know whether or not we're going to be subject to this steel tariff. Is that still the situation?
STEVEN CIOBO: Well we made clear the understanding that was reached at the G20 meeting last year, which is that Australia would be exempt in terms of steel and aluminium. But of course, until the President decrees it as such, so to speak, then we need to make sure that we're always putting our best foot forward. Myself, the Prime Minister, we make no apologies for being strong advocates about what's good for Australia. I mean –
TOM CONNELL: It's still in a bit of doubt though, right now, as to what would happen with this tariff.
STEVEN CIOBO: Well the President hasn't said what he's going to do. We've made clear the agreement that we reached in the G20 for Australia to be exempt is our expectation, understandably, given that was what was reached at the G20. But of course I'm going to take every single opportunity and I won’t apologise for taking every opportunity to stand up for Australian businesses.
TOM CONNELL: What would the impact be on our steel industry if that did go ahead?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, I don't know, in summary, because it would depend on ultimately what it looks like. Is it a quota? Is it a tariff? Is it a combination of both? You know, there's so many parameters there that would need to be determined. We just don't know.
TOM CONNELL: All right. I want to ask you about company tax. The Hanson, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party is saying no to this. It looks pretty dead for the moment in the Senate. She suggested alternatively a payroll cut. Now I know this is State and you'd have to have sort of an overwhelming reform deal that actually went ahead, 'cause it was supposed to be cut after the GST was brought in. What do you make of this? Would that be a pretty good avenue to go down for your electorate?
STEVEN CIOBO: Look, we're talking chalk and cheese. Payroll tax is an anti-employment tax. There's no doubt about that. But State Governments rely on it, and State Governments I think in a lot of State Government budgets, payroll tax accounts for something like 20-25 per cent of State budgets. So I understand where Pauline's coming from, but it has nothing to do at all with the Federal Government-
TOM CONNELL: But given-
STEVEN CIOBO: -that's a decision for State Governments.
TOM CONNELL: Sure, given it's an anti-jobs and anti-wages tax as well really. I mean this is directly what it taxes.
STEVEN CIOBO: Yeah, but, Tom, we can sit here and talk about this for the whole day if you want-
TOM CONNELL: Not really.
STEVEN CIOBO: -but at the end of the day this is a State Government decision.
TOM CONNELL: Sure, but what about, is it the sort of thing that you'd think about, going back to a macro form agenda, you look at GST, you look at a whole range of things again. Or is that just not going to be revisited after-
STEVEN CIOBO: You know, look, I think, frankly, I think it's a waste of time, us spending 10 seconds more talking about payroll tax when it's a State Government issue. So let's talk about a tax that we can control at a Federal level, which is company tax. One thing that is very clear, and this is why the Government has put forward this agenda, we're into the United States where they have cut company taxes. We heard from all of the major employers in the US who were there. We had about 20 of the CEOs from major US companies that employ tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of workers. They made it crystal clear that, as a direct result of those company tax cuts in the United States, they're reinvesting in the US and they're driving employment. We make this same point here in Australia. That's why I say to the Australian Labor Party, they need to stop being so arrogant, 'cause Labor's position is to say to the CEOs of Australian businesses "We don't care what you say." I mean the CEOs in Australia say repeatedly, "Cut company tax. Keep us competitive. Help us invest in our business. Help us grow the economy."
TOM CONNELL: I'm sure there's an argument there, but CEOs are self-interested.
STEVEN CIOBO: CEOs work to the betterment of shareholders. I mean, I'm sorry, but that's a preposterous thing to say. CEOs work-
TOM CONNELL: But hang on, that’s ultimately true, but shareholders ultimately are best off when profits are biggest.
STEVEN CIOBO: That's right. And who benefits from that, Tom? Who are the major beneficiaries when companies do well? Mums and Dads in Australia. Because you know who owns all these businesses? Everybody's superannuation funds. You know sometimes I think we make a mistake in this country. People think "Oh this is only benefiting the rich or the 1%." Rubbish. The people who benefit from companies being more profitable are two groups of people. One - it's the shareholders, which are Mums and Dads, who own all of these businesses through their superannuation funds. The second group of people who benefit are the workers. The workers benefit because more people can get employed, and as more people get employed that means better pay that goes through to those workers.
TOM CONNELL: Ah, well there's a whole range of arguments to wade into there, but we are out of time. Steve Ciobo, Trade Minister. Thanks for your time today.
STEVEN CIOBO: Pleasure.
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