DAVID SPEERS: Joining me now is the Trade Minister, Steve Ciobo. Minister, good morning to you, thanks for joining us. Donald Trump as we saw says ‘mission accomplished’ after these strikes. What mission do you think has been accomplished?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, the clear message here is to send a, in a very straightforward way, that the world will not tolerate the continued use of chemical weapons. The United States, France, and UK have sent that clear message, David. It's a red line, so to speak, and that red line just reinforces that the world will take action when they see the use of chemical weapons, as the Assad regime has unfortunately continued to do on a number of occasions now.

DAVID SPEERS: Look, Donald Trump as you know gave three days’ notice of this strike with his Tweet about ‘nice, new, smart missiles’ being sent to SyriaDo you think it’s possible that Syria might’ve, if these were chemical weapons facilities, hidden them somewhere else, given the advance warning they had?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, David, I'm not sure you or I, frankly, are the right people to be able to answer a question like that. Obviously, there's a lot of expensive equipment sitting all around the world and up in space that can make those kinds of assessments. But I do, and I have, a lot of confidence in the United States' ability to able to ascertain what is an appropriate, proportionate, calibrated use of force against a murderous regime like the Assad regime. That's what the US, the UK, and France have done, and I frankly think it was the right decision.

DAVID SPEERS: More broadly though, the use of chemical weapons obviously is treated very seriously, again here we’ve seen a missile strike in response to it, but there is very little being done about the rest of the civil war, I’m sure you’d agree. 400,000 Syrians have been killed over the last seven years, more than five and a half million have fled the country, why isn’t the west doing more  about that?

STEVEN CIOBO:  Well, David, this is always the challenge. And let's speak frankly about you know, the kinds of decisions that need to be taken. First of all, I would note that Australia's providing an extraordinary of humanitarian assistance. We wanna make sure that we line up shoulder-to-shoulder with other countries around the world who, of course, are justifiably motivated to do what we can to help many people who are suffering at this ongoing conflict. We've provided, I think, just the last little while, over $400 million in humanitarian assistance. Of course, we've got some special refugee numbers that we've provided as well, to provide safe haven for those who are coming out of that conflict zone as well who are persecuted minorities. So that's on the humanitarian side. Let's also look at the military side. We see both the challenges, as well as the benefits that go from military involvement on the ground, so to speak, boots on the ground, as well as what happens when we don't take action like that. And it's fair to say, I think, that both choices have a litany of consequences, some intended, some not intended. What's taking place now in Syria is convoluted, it's complex, but I do believe it's very important that the Western world and here, championed by the United States, makes it very clear that we will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. I think that's an important message to send, and equally importantly, it's very crucial that countries understand- or regimes understand - that if they cross that red line, there will be consequences.

DAVID SPEERS: Alright. Let me turn to your portfolio. Donald Trump is apparently keen to re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, he told his senior economic and trade advisers to examine options. He reportedly said, ‘get it done.’ Although he has since tweeted a bit of a qualifier there that he wants a just substantially better deal. Can I ask, has anyone in the Trump Administration reached out to you in recent days, since these comments?

STEVEN CIOBO: Not in recent days, no. I've got a great relationship with the US Trade Representative, Ambassador Lighthizer. He and I speak pretty regularly, of course we see each other at different international trade fora. I think it's fair to say, yes, I've seen the reports, and it's fair to say that there is interest from the United States. But it's also fair to say, David, that President Trump has been consistent in making clear that he didn't wanna renegotiate aspects of the TPP-11 before the United States would consider rejoining. Now, from Australia's perspective, and obviously, as Australia's Trade Minister, we are firm believers in the TPP-11. As you know, that's one of the reasons why we pursued it, even though, for example, Bill Shorten, the Labor Party, said, "It's dead in the water, walk away from it." I mean, Bill Shorten even described it as Malcolm Turnbull's vanity project. Well, doesn't Bill Shorten look like a fool now? But that notwithstanding, we've pursued it because we know it was in Australia's economic interest, as well as good for Australian jobs.

DAVID SPEERS: Okay but just coming back to whether it’s, whether it’s good for Australia, for the US to re-enter. Now we, of course, already have a free trade agreement with the United States in place, and as members of the TPP-11, we have market access to Japan, Vietnam, other countries, the US does not. So, is it really in Australia’s best interest, do you want the US to rejoin the TPP at this point?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, David, I think it's important to look at that there’s pros and cons. Ultimately, it would come down to the nature of what we call 'market access' to the United States, whether that would go above and beyond what we've achieved under the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. Clearly, from an agricultural perspective, there are benefits that are accruing to Australia- well, not yet, but once the TPP-11 does come into effect, bear in mind it's not yet taken effect. But once it does come into effect, it will be benefits that accrue to, in particular, the Australian agricultural sector, especially with respect to the export of our clean and green produce and getting market access to markets.

DAVID SPEERS: So our farmers would be better off without the US being involved, is that right?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, that's your shorthand way of phrasing it. What I'm saying is that we've got great access under a lot of the bilateral FTAs that we have. This will be further enhancement of that market access, particularly, for example, beef to Japan. Now, if the United States isn't part of it, well, that's good for Australia, relative to the United States, because it means that our Australian beef farmers are getting much better market than US beef farmers. But it's also important, David, equally, to look at this in aggregate terms, to look at what it actually means taking everything into account, including services exports, as well as goods exports, as well as investment opportunities. And so it's not as cut and dry as just saying, "Well, that's what we know about agriculture." We've gotta look at it more broadly.

DAVID SPEERS: Yeah, is there any modelling on what it might, where it would be net benefit or net we’d be worse off, if the US were to rejoin the TPP?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, precisely for the reason you just outlined, David, which is that this is all built upon assumptions about 'what if they join, and if they did join, what would that market access look like?' I mean, there's so many assumptions in there that it would render any modelling, to be honest, largely ineffectual. I've made this point repeatedly.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, to the point that Donald Trump made, ‘he’d want a substantially better deal than the one offered to Barack Obama’, is Australia prepared to give the US a substantially better deal than the initial TPP?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I'll make two comments in response to that, David. The first is that Australia would welcome the United States coming back to the table on the TPP-11. I've said that to USTR Lighthizer, we've made that comment repeatedly in media, as well. It would be good to have the United States back-

DAVID SPEERS: Are you prepared to make it substantially better?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, this goes to the second point, which is that we have now got an agreement between the 11 countries that are in the TPP. Now, I cannot see any appetite- and I know, I've had these conversations with my colleagues. I can't see any appetite for any kind of wholesale renegotiation over the TPP deal to accommodate the United States. Now, don't get me wrong, that's not saying we don't want the Americans back in. We do. But what I am saying is that I can't see us unpicking all the stitching that brought this deal together to accommodate the US at this point.

DAVID SPEERS: Yeah, specifically one of the big demands from the US has been its pharmaceutical patent protection, if they got what they wanted on that we would be looking at higher drug prices here in Australia, wouldn’t we?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, let me be very clear on this. Australia, and it's not only Australia, there are other countries in the TPP-11 as well, but Australia will not accept a situation where we would see an impact on Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or the pricing of drugs in Australia. We've been firm on that, I've always been firm on that, the Government is firm on that.

DAVID SPEERS: That’s your own red line?

STEVEN CIOBO:  That's a critical issue and I can't see any appetite whatsoever for us to make changes with respect to that.

DAVID SPEERS: Is it fair to say Minister that Australia’s interest in the US rejoining the TPP has more to do, or a lot to do, with strategic interests in the region?

STEVEN CIOBO:  Look, this argument's been put to me, and I understand those arguments that are put, but as Trade Minister, my interest in having America come back to the TPP-11 is that it signals not only are they interested in being part of the region and engaging in a trade sense with the region, but it also is a big carrot, frankly, David, for other countries that might look at joining the TPP-11. One of the prospects that excites me is that there is quite a lot of interest that's already coming from other countries who would like to join the TPP. If the United States is at the table, that would be even more compelling for them to look at joining the TPP. And, you know David, I can't stress this enough. There was a critical point 12 months ago, give or take, where Australia had a decision to make: do we go with the TPP-11, do we continue to pursue it, or do we walk away from it? Now, the Coalition has a strong record on trade, we've got the most active trade agenda in our nation's history that I've had the privilege of executing, we're pursuing it, and we pursued the TPP-11. Bill Shorten and the Labor Party would've walked away from it in the same way that they would've never done the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, and all Australians should recognize that the price of that, the price of getting those big trade calls wrong, which Labor does continuously, would mean lower economic growth and fewer jobs for Australians.

DAVID SPEERS: Now the Prime Minister heads off this week to London for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, he’ll also visit Berlin, Brussel, France, a lot of trade talks on the way. With the UK, we can’t actually enter a free trade agreement until they’ve left the European Union, that’s not happening, well, it’s due to happen at the end of 2020, but I understand there has been a British working group here to talk trade, or shortly arriving to talk trade, they’re not allowed to negotiate until Brexit has occurred, so what are they discussing?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, David, I was pleased when I met with Secretary Liam Fox, who's my counterpart in the UK. Australia and the UK, we're the very first country that the UK established this working group with to look at a post-Brexit free trade agreement between Australia and the UK. I have since then continued to have regular conversations with Secretary Fox, and we're making great progress. The progress that we're making is in preliminary discussions about the kind of ambition and scope that we might see under a bilateral free trade agreement between Australia and the UK.

DAVID SPEERS: Definitely not negotiations?

STEVEN CIOBO: You're right, we have not commenced negotiations, we will not commence negotiations until the beginning of that interim period, which is after March next year. That's when we'll start and commence negotiations. And I hope that we will be able to, inside that interim period, conclude negotiations so that we have a free trade agreement ready to go basically from the first day that the UK is officially out of the EU.

DAVID SPEERS: We have pretty open market access here, we don’t have much in the way of tariffs. What does the UK want in terms of greater market access in Australia? Is it better access, for instance, is it to work here?

STEVEN CIOBO: No, look, I think the opportunities, really, David, are around what we can do. We have three broad categories. That is, with respect to investment, with respect to services, and with respect to goods. They're the three headers, so to speak, in relation to any of these discussions. Now, it is true that we both have fairly open economies. There certainly is more opportunity for us to do more work around investment and around services exports. And take, for example, David- and this is gonna be the future, in many respects, for developed economies like Australia and the UK. You know, we've got people who are developing intellectual property, creating wealth in relation to services exports. Think of the architects, health services, legal services, financial services. These are all areas where we can do a lot more together in order to boost each other's economy. But also, importantly, help consumers by having a more competitive and a more evolved marketplace that, ultimately, is a benefit to those that are buying these goods and services.

DAVID SPEERS: Now, Steve Ciobo, can I turn finally to the past week for the Government? It’s been messy, it began with a 30th newspoll defeat, Barnaby Joyce then setting a Christmas deadline for Malcolm Turnbull to either improve those numbers or go, Tony Abbott calling the PM ‘tricky’, Peter Dutton correcting Malcolm Turnbull over internal discussions on immigration. How you would characterise this past week?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, David, also over this past week, we've seen really strong job growth numbers out of Australia, and the reason I focus on that is because it's not that I'm blind or deaf to any of the things that you've outlined. What it actually reinforces is that I'm absolutely focused on what it is that I think Australians care about. Ultimately, what Australians care about isn't these kinds of, as we say, 'inside the Beltway' discussions, what they wanna know is: can I get a decent job?; what's my job security look like?; who's helping to lower the cost of my everyday items that I need to pay for, including, for example, energy? And they wanna know that they're going to have opportunities for their children as well. That's what matters to them.

DAVID SPEERS: They absolutely do but do you think the Government is presenting a united message on all of this at the moment?

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, it's no different, to, frankly, some of the division we see in the Australian Labor Party. We see discordant voices on the Labor side as well. I mean, politics, now, you always get these kinds of...

DAVID SPEERS: Well, I’m asking right now about your own Government and I don’t think you could suggest right now Labor looks quite as messy, shambolic as the Government does at times.

STEVEN CIOBO: Well, I reject entirely the notion that we're shambolic. As a Government, we have delivered in spades, David. We've got record job creation, the vast bulk of which, something like, 75% is full-time jobs. 420,000 jobs over the past 12 months. Now, that's not the consequences of a shambles. That's a consequence of disciplined economic policy, strong leadership that's helping deliver the right conditions for people to employ Australians-

DAVID SPEERS: Right well you’ve got backbench groupings pushing an entirely different direction on energy policy, you’ve got others pushing for a big cut in immigration, you’ve got prominent backbenchers saying Malcolm Turnbull’s going to have to go if he doesn’t improve the polls by the end of the year, you don’t accept that is well, at least, a little messy?

STEVEN CIOBO:  I accept that there are distractions on both sides of the political aisle, David. We've seen voices within the Australian Labor who are pushing for Bill Shorten to water down their border protection laws. We hear voices from Labor Left saying, "How could Labor possibly adopt a 'turn back the boats' policy where it's safe to do so? How can Labor possibly adopt off-shore processing?" I mean, you know, we hear the same types of things, frankly, within the Labor Party, some incredibly dangerous policies from within the Labor Party from the discordant voices. So, you know, as I said, why would I deny that there are different voices putting forward different points of view on the Opposition and the Government's side? But all I'm saying to you is that that is not what I'm focused on. That's why I choose deliberately to ignore those things so that I focus on the main thing that matters to Australians.

DAVID SPEERS: And for the record, Steve Ciobo, would you like to be the Prime Minister one day?

STEVEN CIOBO: You know, for the very reasons I outlined, David, I'm not even gonna worry about it. I can't even begin to tell you how pleased I am to be Trade, Tourism, and Investment Minister. That's what my focus is. I'm not looking a kilometre down the road to whether or not there might be changes with respect to Opposition Government, all these types of things, David, it's irrelevant.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, that’s a very disciplined answer  from one Minister. Steve Ciobo thank you very much for joining me this morning.

STEVEN CIOBO: Thanks, David.

Media enquiries

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