SABRA LANE: The European Union has formally given the green light to negotiating a fast-tracked free trade agreement with Australia. The EU's Chief Trade Commissioner will visit Canberra next month to formally kick off those talks. The Federal Government believes the agreement has the potential to be the largest free trade deal yet, but it's not prepared to put a dollar figure on it just yet. To discuss it, I was joined a short time ago by the Trade Minister, Steve Ciobo. Steve Ciobo, thanks for joining AM.

STEVEN CIOBO: Good to be with you.

SABRA LANE: The green-lighting of the talks, when would you like to conclude this deal, given that Brexit happens next March and there are EU elections in May?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I would probably separate the Brexit discussions from the EU, but obviously we want to conclude a deal as soon as we practicably can. From my perspective, this is a good quality deal. This is about making sure that Australia has the best opportunity now to reset our relationship with the European Union. For a long time, we've laboured under market access conditions that haven't been ideal, and so this will be a chance to reset that. So, it's a great opportunity for Australia.

SABRA LANE: How much could this be worth to Australia?

STEVEN CIOBO: Look, it's difficult to say. Our two-way terms of trade with Europe now is circa $100 billion, in aggregate terms it's our second largest market, in terms of two-way trade. But what we do see is a big difference between agricultural exports from the European Union to Australia, and when you consider the respective population sizes, there's clearly work that we can do in that respect but it's also much broader than that. It's not just agriculture, it's what we can do on services, our strong investment relationship, so there's a lot of new opportunities that will flow from this as well.

SABRA LANE: So what sectors in Australia is set to gain from this?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, obviously, we are just about to commence negotiations so I can't speak definitively, but what I can say is we certainly believe we can do more on the agriculture side. They are traditional strengths for Australia. But I also want to focus on what we can do together in a range of new areas. There's opportunities in relation to digital innovation, there's opportunities in relation to services especially. We're both very mature, developed economies. Services sector does present terrific opportunities for Australian exporters to do more, together with the Europeans.

SABRA LANE: Is there a danger in rushing the agreement? That details will be overlooked and it'll be a detrimental deal for Australia?

STEVEN CIOBO: Absolutely not. I mean the key to a good trade deal, a comprehensive, high-quality trade deal is that it produces a win-win outcome. So at no stage would we ever look at, would we ever overlook details. I mean, we've got a really strong track record, especially under the Coalition, of opening up more diversified export opportunities for Australia and this is just another step on that journey.

SABRA LANE: These talks were supposed to get underway last year, they didn't because there was concern by the French and others that a deal with Australia wouldn't be good for that country's agriculture sector, what guarantees can you give to Australian farmers that producers will get a good agreement out of this, where they won't be the losers?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I'm certainly not going to sign up to a deal that isn't good for Australia. So the guarantee is that if there's not a good deal on the table, then we won't do the deal, so what I'm determined to make sure we do is produce a win-win outcome - good for Australia, good for the Europeans, good for consumers. That's our track record, it's what I did with the TPP-11, it's what I did with Peru, it's what we did with Singapore and likewise, it's what my predecessor Andrew Robb did with China, Korea and Japan.

SABRA LANE: Well, given the public scepticism about free trade deals, what scrutiny will be applied to this to make sure that it is in Australia's interests and to appease concerns that, you know, a lot of the population has?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I've been focused on increasing transparency around trade negotiations since I came into the role. Consultation with stakeholders is critical, I want to make sure that industry stakeholders are aware of what's happening before each round, how each round goes, what process is taking place from that point onwards, how they can better have more buy-in into the process, there's also scope to do that with consumer groups. I think if we focus on that then that's going to mean that we have Australians and Australian business along beside us for this journey.

SABRA LANE: What about the general public, because One Nation has been able to leverage concern over this to get more votes, because they've argued that these free trade deals haven't been good for farmers?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, on no objective measure could you ever argue that the trade deals that we've put in place have not been good for Australia's agricultural sector. I mean, on every single measure, if you look at the values and the quantities of Australian agricultural exports, these trade deals absolutely underpin the prosperity of regional Australia. So I mean, I would reject outright that these have been anything other than fantastic for Australia's agricultural sector.

SABRA LANE: Where does this leave the deal with the UK now?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, that's progressing. These things are happening in parallel. It's not a case of it being black or white. It's a case of doing both of these together. The UK discussions are progressing. We haven't commenced negotiations, because the UK can't commence negotiations until they formally exit the EU, but when they do formally exit the EU, we will commence that process as well.

SABRA LANE: Given that the One Nation Party now has killed off the Government's chances of getting the rest of its corporate tax package through Parliament, should the Government now abandon the package?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, absolutely not. We as a Government are committed to reducing taxes on Australian business, because we know that lower taxes on Australian business-

SABRA LANE: Committed to it to the next election, even though that there are some in the party saying perhaps it's worth just leaving it?

STEVEN CIOBO: We are committed to lower taxes, absolutely, because we need Australia's business community to be internationally tax-competitive. If we are not internationally tax-competitive, that will mean less investment in Australia, it will mean lower levels of economic growth, and it will mean fewer job opportunities for Australians. That's why the Coalition is absolutely committed to lower taxes, a more competitive environment. We must make sure that we continue to attract capital investment in Australia, to make sure we can keep generating the kinds of jobs growth that we've seen over the past five years.

SABRA LANE: How comfortable are you with Andrew Hastie using Parliamentary Privilege to name Chau Chak Wing as a co-conspirator in a UN bribery case?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, Parliamentary Privilege is a privilege that's attached to being a Member of Parliament. It needs to be exercised with an extraordinary amount of judicial restraint, so to speak. There's nothing new in terms of what Andrew Hastie said in Parliament, but all of that has been-

SABRA LANE: Are you comfortable with him doing it?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, it's not a question of me being comfortable or not. He's got to make a determination about the judicial use of Parliamentary Privilege. He's got to do so in a way that, I think, is appropriate. Ultimately, the media, the public will be arbiters about whether or not he's achieved that balance, but I make the point again that there's nothing new in terms of what he said in Parliament last night that hasn't already been in the public domain.

SABRA LANE: Does it make it harder for you in resuming normal business ties with China?

STEVEN CIOBO: I don't think so, because for the exact reason I just said, which is that there was nothing new in it, you know, I don't envisage this being a problem. My commitment and focus is upon making sure that our broad and deep trading relationship, investment relationship with China continues. That's why I was only up there last week. We'll continue those discussions, and I'm very focused on producing a good outcome, because you know, China's our biggest trading partner. It underpins $175 billion worth of two-way trade and the prosperity, not just in regions, but also in the cities of Australia.

SABRA LANE: Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, thanks for joining us this morning.

STEVEN CIOBO: Good to speak with you.

Media enquiries

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