Andrew Robb: With Vietnam in particular we’re involved in what is called the TPP or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and that involves 12 countries in the region, from the United States, Japan, Canada, down through a couple of South American countries, Mexico, Peru, Chile, New Zealand but then across to Vietnam and Brunei and Malaysia, so all of those countries.  We are very close to concluding this TPP. 

Anna Vidot: When you say very close though, I mean that’s always a relative term in trade negotiations and we’re hearing from the grape industry in particular, that they can’t even afford to wait a year or they might be shut out by competitors in Vietnam for many years to come. So how quickly do you expect this to be able to be resolved?

Andrew Robb: Well, we’ve got a meeting in mid-February where we are hoping to conclude it. So we are very close to concluding it.  I mean there has to be an agreement on some very difficult issues in the last couple of weeks, but we are very close on the TPP which includes Vietnam – and that’s 40 per cent of world trade under that agreement. It’s a 21st century agreement. It goes not just into products but it will mean that on bio-security we will have an agreement with Vietnam in the context of our TPP. So we are not ignoring other markets; I mean there’s 40 per cent of the world’s GDP covered by those 12 nations and it’s going to be a really trail-blazing agreement I think for the region.

Anna Vidot: How confident are you though that any eventual agreement will be able to make it through places like the US Congress, even in Japan as well?   

Andrew Robb: Quite confident to be honest. I mean the Congress is dominated by Republicans now – and in fact the Republicans are more likely to vote for this sort of agreement – and the chief negotiator, the secretary of the USTR, Mike Froman – I know from personal contact with the congressman over there – he has been keeping them abreast the whole way through, so again there is always uncertainties but I do feel that there is every prospect that the Congress in the United States will pass it. Of course it has to get through every country’s parliamentary procedures – including our own – so I am not taking any of that for granted, but I think if we do a deal which is fair and attractive, as the other three were last year, then we should be able to get it through our parliamentary process and get bi-partisan support as we have with the others.

Anna Vidot: But you are hopeful an agreement at least could be made mid-February?

Andrew Robb: Mid-February to mid-March. That will be I think the time frame. We might have to come back again to conclude some things but that’s the intent. It really is a vital time. We have sort of concluded that that would be the best time if we can manage it. There are still some, not many, but the final issues as always are the most difficult, but everyone seems to be in a mood to find some common ground so that we can get this really major agreement off the ground.   

Anna Vidot: Are we also pursuing adequately our bi-lateral arrangements with Vietnam to try and resolve this issue even if the TPP does drag on or indeed the ratification of it drags on?

Andrew Robb: Well absolutely, our Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce met with the Vietnamese Ambassador on this table grape industry issue in particular and they, I understand, agreed to continue to seek to resolve this quickly, so-much-so that a technical team is going to visit Vietnam next week, and we hope that it will be resolved imminently.  We can’t guarantee it, but major resources of government are going in to try and resolve this issue. So we can walk and chew gum at the same time and that’s what we are trying to do across a whole raft of trade and investment issues.

Anna Vidot: Just finally on Vietnam, obviously you’ve had great success as a trade negotiator with the FTA agreements, is there a point at which you would step in personally to help out resolving the Vietnam situation?

Andrew Robb: Minister Joyce has responsibility for that area and his departmental people do work in lockstep with my people. I don’t think I need to step in. I think Barnaby Joyce is very well equipped to deal with it and he’s been dealing with some of these issues in several countries around the world and making a lot of progress in what is often quite difficult – often they use these bio-security issues to put up a non-tariff barrier to stop trade and I think a lot of it is just to keep coming back and having representations at the highest level, and I think Barnaby is very adept at doing that.

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