04 April 2023

Ben Fordham, Host: Well, the Prime Minister has thrown his support behind Premiers visiting China. It seems to be the thing to do at the moment. The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has just returned from a trip to Beijing. The WA Premier Mark McGowan is off to China later this month. The Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is going in November. And Anthony Albanese says this is a good thing, “I want to see cooperation with China wherever we can. It’s about jobs. It’s about them looking after their states.” And he says, “I’ve said that if I was invited, I would go, too.”

Tim Ayres is the Federal Assistant Minister for Trade, and Tim Ayres is live in the 2GB studio in Sydney. Tim, good morning, and welcome to the studio.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: G’day, Ben. Good to be here.

Ben Fordham: Thank you for coming along. So, are you okay with Premiers conducting their own trade missions?

Assistant Minister: Yes, I am. I am. I think it’s – you know, Australia’s trade with China, $268 billion a year. The trade – the jobs in firms that export overseas are always better paid jobs, good quality jobs. And I think it’s a sign of return to a more stable relationship as premiers start to engage with China.

Ben Fordham: We’ve managed to survive without the Chinese market in recent years. That’s probably a good thing, right, not having all of our eggs in the one basket?

Assistant Minister: Well, can I separate that out for you into two bits, maybe, Ben. The first thing is that trade with China has expanded over the last two years. It’s got bigger in part as a function of surging iron ore prices. There are some exports, though, where China has put impediments in place of those – in front of those exports, and that’s hurt particular communities. Seafood communities, particularly lobsters, winegrowing communities and a number of our other exports that haven’t been able to find alternative markets.

Ben Fordham: You've just got back from China. So where are we at with those boycotts? Because we’ve heard they’re taking our coal. We’ve heard they’re taking our lobster. What about all those industries that have been waiting and wondering what’s going to happen next?

Assistant Minister: Well, the Albanese Government is taking a measured and calm and consistent approach to this – one step at a time. There’s been engagements at ministerial level. Don Farrell and I have had a series of separate meetings over the course of this year, but also very concentrated engagement at an official level working through some of the technical issues that are associated with the Australian impediments.

Ben Fordham: What are the industries out there that should know that you’re advocating on their behalf and maybe there's a light at the end of the tunnel? The wine industry, for example?

Assistant Minister: If you’re a winegrower, if you’re in seafood, particularly lobster harvesters, barley, forest products, there’s a series of products there that there has not been much movement on. And, you know, I always count success in these things in terms of the number of container loads that are delivered into Chinese ports, not the actual outcomes of discussions, and I want to see progress.

Ben Fordham: So, there’ll be more going?

Assistant Minister: I want to see more progress and I want to see a situation where we return to normal, stable trade where there are no impediments in front of Australian exporters.

Ben Fordham: So, off the back of the discussions you’ve had, we’d expect that more shipments are going to be heading to China?

Assistant Minister: Well, what I expect to see is more discussions at official level. I mean, these trade impediments didn’t happen overnight, and they will not be resolved overnight. I do not want to raise expectations out there that these issues are going to be fixed in 5 minutes. But what people should know is that the Australian Government is working very hard in the national interest in a focused and determined way to resolve these issues.

Ben Fordham: Tim Ayres is our guest in the studio. He’s the Assistant Minister for Trade. The Prime Minister is set to ban TikTok on all government devices. And this is a widely popular Chinese-owned app. Should all politicians delete the app immediately?

Assistant Minister: Well, I’ve seen the reporting this morning that claims to know what the announcement is going to be and claims that there will be an announcement later today. I have not been briefed on what the announcement is, and nor would I expect to be. But what the Australian Government has done is commissioned the security agencies to give us an independent report, and we will act on the basis of the advice. That’s all I can say at this stage Ben.

Ben Fordham: Are you on TikTok?

Assistant Minister: No. No, I’m not on TikTok. I mean, I’m probably the wrong person to ask. I still have a wind-up watch. I’m, you know, not real big on social media, I have to say.

Ben Fordham: Okay. But if there is some kind of directive given to everyone who’s associated with government departments, that would apply to politicians as well obviously.

Assistant Minister: If there’s a directive, we will follow the directive directly.

Ben Fordham: When you go to China, do you take your mobile phone?

Assistant Minister: No, I don’t take my mobile phone. So I’m pretty hard to find for a few days. But –

Ben Fordham: Why is that? Why do you leave your phone at home?

Assistant Minister: Well, what we do is we follow the security advice.

Ben Fordham: And the security advice is?

Assistant Minister: Well, the security advice is take a different phone.

Ben Fordham: Because they’re worried about Chinese spies?

Assistant Minister: Well, we just have security advice that we follow in terms of a range of jurisdictions. And –

Ben Fordham: Where else would you not take your mobile phone?

Assistant Minister: Well, I wouldn’t – I don’t want to go through a list of countries this morning for you, Ben, but –

Ben Fordham: There are other countries, though, are there?

Assistant Minister: Well, I think your listeners wouldn’t be surprised that we are cautious and act according to the security advice when we travel. And we’re there to do a job. We’re there to do a job on behalf of the Australian people, and we do that work carefully and conscientiously.

Ben Fordham: The Japanese gas giant INPEX has invested tens of billions of dollars in Australia. Your government has reformed the Safeguard Mechanism which cracks down on big polluters. It’s going to make it harder for new projects to get off the ground, and the CEO of INPEX says – and I quote – “The question of who will replace Australian supply into the market is front and centre.” He’s talking about gas obviously. He says, “The inconvenient truth is it will most likely come from Russia, China or Iran. They’ll have to fill the void.” So these don’t seem to be throwaway comments. He’s saying that not only are you scaring off international investment but you’ll end up having to cut a cheque to a country like potentially Russia.

Assistant Minister: We are the second largest exporter of gas in the world. We are a reliable partner for economies, including the Japanese and Korean economies, for gas exports. That will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. The Safeguard Mechanism has been broadly welcomed by industry right across the board and, in fact, what we’ve seen over the last couple of days is companies make announcements about new investment.

Ben Fordham: Can I share some of the negative feedback with you?

Assistant Minister: But we need to go through this. BlueScope, I mean, Ed Husic is in Whyalla today at the steelworks there. BlueScope, Orica, a range of these companies are making significant new investments on the back of –

Ben Fordham: Sure. But they’re big businesses. Let me share one with you that’s not as big as BlueScope – Nyrstar operating out of Hobart. They employ 1,300 staff. They work with critical minerals like zinc and lead and silver. They can’t switch to renewable energy because it doesn’t generate enough heat. Their CEO Dale Webb says, “Cutting emissions by five per cent a year will cost us hundreds of millions of dollars.” So what happens to all the manufacturing workers working for a company like that?

Assistant Minister: There are specific arrangements that will be worked through company by company for firms that sit in a place where they are hard to abate, hard for them to make adjustments that reduce their carbon emissions and they’re export-exposed, right? So they’re exposed to the market. Where that is, there will be arrangements for all of those firms. It has been welcomed right across the board. We will work carefully with every single one of these companies to make sure that there is a good outcome. We are –

Ben Fordham: The cement industry as well. You’ve got a number of cement companies as well. The CEO of Boral says, “We need to ensure local manufacturers remain competitive.” You’re saying a lot of these companies will be shielded from the effects of these changes?

Assistant Minister: We will work through these issues company by company. The Minister has made this very clear. I mean, this is a government that is about re-industrialising the Australian economy.

Ben Fordham: Okay.

Assistant Minister: We’ve got the National Reconstruction Fund, $15 billion, to build new manufacturing jobs, new factories in our outer suburbs and regions –

Ben Fordham: Are we going to start making solar panels in Australia? Are we going to start making electric cars in Australia?

Assistant Minister: Well, this is our best chance. We are just hovering between 6 and 7 per cent of GDP in manufacturing. And this government is determined to re-energise manufacturing. We’re doing it with the fund. We’re doing it with our investments in new energy and new, cheaper energy. We have to make sure that we’ve got a viable manufacturing industry and industrial capability for the next few decades.

Ben Fordham: A couple of quick questions before I let you go. I want to ask you about the Voice. Will the Voice have a say on matters relating to trade?

Assistant Minister: I can’t envisage a situation where the Voice is engaged with government over issues of trade.

Ben Fordham: Okay. But Megan Davis, who is in charge of the Referendum Working Group, she indicates that the Voice will have a say on everything. So you’re saying not trade?

Assistant Minister: Well, read the Second Reading speech. It’s very clear that the Voice will be engaged on issues that specifically affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Ben Fordham: Trade doesn’t impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people?

Assistant Minister: Specifically and particularly in a different kind of way, no. I mean, I can tell you, there is a lot of interest overseas in First Nations products, though.

Ben Fordham: Sure.

Assistant Minister: In Indigenous products. And we will be out there you know, prosecuting the case for more access to markets for products that are made by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians because there’s a big market for those overseas.

Ben Fordham: I want to ask you about Don Farrell, who is the Minister for Trade. He had a shocker last week in the Senate while trying to answer pretty simple questions, including this response when he was asked about power prices, “Look, I have to say I’m – I don’t follow power prices as closely to be able to answer the question.” Should you be the minister instead of Don Farrell?

Assistant Minister for Trade: Absolutely not. You know, I really enjoy working with Don Farrell.

Ben Fordham: Well, why does he struggle so much when it comes to answering simple questions?

Assistant Minister: Well, don’t confuse Don’s folksy style – which I understand some people in the Libs want to mock – don’t confuse his folksy style with what is actually a laser focus on the national interest in trade.

Ben Fordham: And that folksy style, that helps when you’re negotiating overseas major trade deals?

Assistant Minister: Absolutely, I have watched him engage with trade ministers, national leaders overseas, and this guy is absolutely focused on the national interest and very, very effective in international trade fora. I have absolutely complete confidence in his capacity to do this in a way that I think has been extraordinarily effective for Australia over the last 10 months.

Ben Fordham: I’ve only met you today, but I think you’re a more effective communicator than Senator Farrell.

Assistant Minister: Well, as I say, he is a very, very capable Trade Minister. And my observation over the last couple of decades of watching this portfolio closely, he is the most effective Trade Minister I’ve seen.

Ben Fordham: We’ve only got 30 seconds till the news. Can you show off your Mandarin, considering that you’ve been in China?

Assistant Minister: My language skills are an embarrassment, Ben.

Ben Fordham: Come on, you must have learned a few things from [indistinct].

Assistant Minister: I struggled at school with languages. I didn’t take up the opportunity to learn languages in later life. It’s one of my many personal deficiencies.

Ben Fordham: And you’d encourage Chris Minns to go to China, too?

Assistant Minister: Well, look, all the Premiers who are invited or seek to go, it’s a sign of stabilisation in the relationship, and there is important export opportunities for the states there.

Ben Fordham: We really appreciate you coming into the studio. Let’s do it again, soon.

Assistant Minister: Good, mate. See you soon.

Ben Fordham: Tim Ayres joining us in the studio. He is the Assistant Minister for Trade.