David Speers: I’m joined by the Trade Minister, Simon Birmingham. Thanks very much for your time this afternoon.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, David.
David Speers: Let’s just go through a bit of a list here from Labor. One, they want to guarantee that these trade agreements protect Australian jobs. Can you give that sort of guarantee?
Simon Birmingham: I can do better than that. I can guarantee that these agreements help to create Australian jobs. That’s been the lived experience of the agreements to date, where we’ve seen Australia’s export volumes and value grow substantially. You know, there’s 18 per cent more Australian businesses exporting today than they were when our Government was elected. And so, I welcome the fact that the Labor Party have indicated their intention to pass the legislation. It shouldn’t need to be conditional, but we’ll work through their conditions and see what sort of response we can provide. But in terms of creating Australian jobs, the whole point of these agreements is to create Australian jobs.
David Speers: Yes, but can you protect all jobs under a trade deal like this?
Simon Birmingham: Well David, we have an open economy and so businesses grow some businesses fail, sadly. What I can say is: the proven experience of the trade deals that we’ve done under a government is that Australian export volumes have grown. We’ve been recording now record trade surpluses. So we’re exporting more than we’re importing as a nation on a routine basis now. That wasn’t the case previously. And so, these sorts of trade deals have improved our opportunity, and the ones that we want to now bring into force will only expand that and continue that trend.
David Speers: Labor wants an assurance that working holiday makers are not exploited and are properly qualified for jobs they get in Australia. There is an increase for Indonesian working holiday makers. So what assurance is there that they will be appropriately qualified for any job they get here?
Simon Birmingham: So, it’s already a legal requirement to make sure that if somebody is, for example, working on a building site or particularly in a licensed profession, well, they have to have those licensing requirements the same as any other Australian. Just because you’re from a different country, if you happen to be undertaken by some work under Australia — and that’s very rare — but if you are then you’ve got to meet the same qualification requirements of a state or territory government in any of those circumstances. And we want to make sure that that is enforced. And we want to make sure that in relation to any overseas workers, there’s been work undertaken already by the Government in terms of ensuring that there’s not exploitation, and we’ll continue to pursue that.
David Speers: Labor wants to terminate the existing bilateral investment treaty with Indonesia. It says there are outdated provisions there for the Investor-State Dispute Settlement clauses. Can you, or will you, terminate that existing bilateral agreement?
Simon Birmingham: So the Shadow Minister Madeleine King wrote to me about that a little while ago and it featured in the JSCOT report as well — the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties.
David Speers: They recommended it.
Simon Birmingham: They recommended it as well.
David Speers: Will you do it?
Simon Birmingham: So, we’ve been having a look at that and I hope that we’ll be able to finalise a position in relation that.
David Speers: You can’t give them an answer on that?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I just have to make sure that all of the issues in relation to the relationship with Indonesia won’t be affected by that. I’m confident that we should be able to work through that issue.
David Speers: So you need to get that cleared with Indonesia?
Simon Birmingham: We need to just make sure that there aren’t any surprises in relation to the things that we do. Because this is an agreement between Australia and Indonesia. It’s about ensuring that our farmers and businesses …
David Speers: But you’re- for Australia’s part, you’re willing to do that?
Simon Birmingham: We’ll have those conversations and I’ll come back to the Labor Party before the matter goes to a vote in the House of Representatives. I appreciate the fact that they are wanting, it seems, to be able to progress on these agreements. We had called for bipartisanship to be maintained in relation to them. And so, we’ll work sensibly along these lines.
David Speers: One of the other demands here: an assurance there’s no interference from these agreements that are going to require the privatisation of government services or restrict any future decision to bring- to acquire public assets. Can you give that assurance?
Simon Birmingham: Yes. Yes. So I mean, you only have to read the agreement itself to know that that’s the case. So, those matters are just statements of fact in terms of what’s in or out of the agreement. And it is, ultimately, to come back to your very first question about assurances around jobs, people need to understand: that’s the reason that we do this. Around 240,000 Australian jobs are estimated to have been created over the last five years as a result of trade-related activity. And we looked today at a decrease in the unemployment rate; job growth occurring across Australia. Trade has played a big role in that. And our intention is for that to continue by giving Australian farmers and businesses the opportunity to access a market in Indonesia of huge population, growing strong economy, that will be one of the biggest economies in the world in years to come; that also happens to be right on our doorstep.
David Speers: Just one other point about the Hong Kong Free Trade Agreement — or trade deal — some have suggested we shouldn’t do it until we get an assurance that human rights will be protected in Hong Kong. Can you put that sort of thing in a trade deal?
Simon Birmingham: Look David, I mean, very hard to say you could put that in [audio skip] exactly would you be seeking to define in relation to that. What we’ve made clear, and the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties accepted, is that having a separate trade deal with Hong Kong to the one we already have with China is about giving support and commitment to the separate system, the separate rule of law that exists in Hong Kong, and recognising …
David Speers: But this is what the protests are all about, whether that separate system, One Country, Two Systems, is going to be maintained.
Simon Birmingham: And we are giving clearly an endorsement to Australia’s relationship with that separate system by enacting this agreement …
David Speers: Aren’t you giving an endorsement to the administration of Carrie Lam?
Simon Birmingham: No, we’re saying that we want to continue to see operation occur under the rule of law and the structures that are there at present. And so, that is precisely what this agreement seeks to do. Now, we are monitoring all of the circumstances in Hong Kong very carefully. We’ve continued to urge for, not only peaceful resolution but peaceful resolution that recognises and continues to support the two systems. That’s what Australia supports and that’s what this deal helps to underpin.
David Speers: Before I let you go, there’s a bit of tension between the Nats and the Libs today over drought. Did Cabinet sign off on the measures that have been announced today?
Simon Birmingham: David, I don’t talk about Cabinet processes in that regard. But of course, any decisions and policy announcements of Government are decisions taken by the whole of Government. They enjoy the support of the Ministry.
David Speers: And so this is a Government commitment, not just a National Party commitment?
Simon Birmingham: We make the commitments as a Government, and you have seen since we came, particularly over the last year since Scott Morrison became Prime Minister, that of all the areas of public policy, I suspect there have been more announcements made in relation to drought policy than any other, as we continually go back and look at the evolving situation and see what more can be done to support farmers, to support communities, and to build resilience for the future.
David Speers: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, thank you for joining me this afternoon, appreciate that.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you.
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