01 March 2023


Richard King, Host: On a Wednesday morning it's not often we get visitors in the studio, but it's nice to have visitors in the studio rather than talking to people over the telephone and joining me now is New South Wales Labor Senator Tim Ayres. Thank you very much, Tim, for coming in.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: G'day, Richard, it's it is terrific to be here and meet you, meet you in the studio. We've talked so many times over the last 10 or 15 years on the telephone, it's good to put a face to the name and very good to talk to your listeners, too.

King: Look, firstly, one of the reasons for coming to Newcastle, this correct labelling of seafood, or seafood country of origin labelling. And I was just saying jokingly, so now we'll know whether or not my barramundi comes from the mouth of the Mekong Delta, or is from an Australian wild catch, or farming, et cetera?

Assistant Minister: Yeah, it's an important reform. We are determined to back the fishing industry, places like Newcastle, but all around our coast, have got families who run fishing trawlers, there's 10,000 of them around Australia and we said on the way into the election, we're determined to give them a fair go and to give Australians a real choice about their seafood.

Now, the evidence shows most Australians think that if the seafood isn't labelled imported, that it's actually Australian seafood, and - but 60 per cent of the seafood we consume is from overseas. And you're right, barramundi, you just assume, because it's called barramundi, that it comes from Australia, but quite often it's farmed in Southeast Asia. So, we want to give Australians a fair dinkum choice over their seafood. I think that's what customers want. It's been welcomed very strongly in the fishing industry and I'm really happy to come here to Newcastle to talk with the fishing industry about how important this change is going to be for their future.

King: All right, so you're taking steps to make it easier for us to know where it comes from. How long are these steps? You know, when it goes through the wheels of bureaucracy, is it going to happen tomorrow, six months' time, or are you going to take it to the next election?

Assistant Minister: No, well, we took it to the last election. It was one of the things that Labor took to the last election. It's my intention to have this worked through - it's got to be worked through the Parliament and work through the States and Territories process. So, there is, as you say, some bureaucracy and the wheels of the Commonwealth-State arrangements to work through. But I want to see this change in place by next Christmas.

King: Right.

Assistant Minister: And I want to see Australian consumers having a real choice. We are going to consult properly with the industry and the restaurant sector and we're going to make this set of reforms really simple. It's not going to be complicated, it's going to be really simple for customers, for restaurants and for the fishing industry itself.

King: And this will apply to fish and chip shops? When I go down to get my fish and chips -

Assistant Minister: It will, it will.

King: I'll know where the fish comes from?

Assistant Minister: Yeah, it'll apply to fish and chip shops, to pubs, to restaurants. At the moment, it applies to supermarkets. So, your listeners will know when they go to the supermarket and you line up in Coles or Woolies or the IGA or your local independent grocer, that they are required to indicate whether the prawns come from overseas or whether they're from Australia. This will just shift that requirement in a very simple way across to fish and chip shops and restaurants in the hospitality sector.

And the truth is, customers are demanding this. Consumers want to see it in the restaurant, they want to know where their seafood is coming from. And it's a reform that the fishing industry itself, who are essentially families and blue-collar workers doing pretty hard work. You're not in the fishing industry because there's rivers of gold. Most people in the fishing industry are family operations who have been doing it for generations. And I want to make sure, and Anthony Albanese wants to make sure, that we're in their corner, backing in that industry.

King: My guest, Tim Ayres, New South Wales Labor Senator, you have a union background. Unions have been pretty hot on this silicosis that's become a real issue. The meeting yesterday with Tony Burke and his counterparts at the state level have said, okay, we're going to throw back to Fair Work Australia, and they can decide what a ban on these man-generated stone, et cetera, what that would look like. I noticed the CFMEU said, "well, that's great," but if it doesn't happen by July of next year, all hell will break loose, as far as the union movement goes. I gather this has been bubbling away, it hasn't just happened yesterday, it's been bubbling away for quite some time?

Assistant Minister: No, it's been clear that silicosis, as a result of engineering these kitchen products, it has been clear that it's been causing illness and death for workers in that sector. In my life, working in and around the trade union movement, you know, we campaigned hard on the issue of asbestos and the impact that it had on workers, particularly industrial workers, on the waterfront and the construction industry.

And what we're seeing now is a repeat of that for people who are cutting up Caesarstone and other sort of kitchen silica products. I was really pleased to see that Tony Burke led that - Tony Burke, the National Industrial Relations Minister - led that discussion amongst the States and Territories, and we're going to see progress on that issue, that's going to save lives in the future. It's a dreadful, dreadful disease and I'm very pleased that we're working together with the States and Territories to tie this up.

King: I've had a lot of calls on it the last few days and a number of people that have said they've worked with Caesarstone for many years, and they said, look, if you do what you're supposed to do and when you're cutting it, use water, it's not an issue. So, it's one of the big issues, the fact that a lot of people aren't doing the right thing?

Assistant Minister: Well, I heard the same arguments as a union official talking to businesses in the construction industry about asbestos. The challenge with asbestos is that it was impossible to contain the risk and there was no safe level of exposure. In terms of silicosis, you only have to watch an interview with one of these people who has been affected. It is invariably a terminal condition, and we have to act to contain that risk.

Now, the details - how that is going to be dealt with, which products are going to be engaged, obviously these are complex issues and the decision-making by the States and Territories and the Commonwealth Government needs to be driven by the science and the public health effects. But we've got to look after people in this sector. Building workers and workers in factories have got a right to not only a safe workplace, but to a long and healthy retirement. And we're going to do what is needed, we'll listen carefully to industry, we'll listen carefully to firms in the household construction sector, but we are going to act to protect the safety and the health of blue-collar workers in this sector.

King: A very hot topic at the moment, superannuation, the announcement yesterday by the Prime Minister and Treasurer that at the next election, one of the issues that Labor will take to the next election is super accounts over $3 million will be - well, your earnings are going to be taxed at a higher rate, 30 per cent rather than 15 per cent. Angus Taylor very quick yesterday, and I think if this had been his mantra, ‘when Labor run out of money, they come after yours’ and ‘this is the tip of the iceberg’. What do you say to comments by people like Angus Taylor that this is the tip of the iceberg, that Labor will be coming after negative gearing, this will be the start of they’re after my money, your money?

Assistant Minister: Well, poor old Angus Taylor and Peter Dutton, they only know how to say no. Whether it's the National Reconstruction Fund, where we're putting $15 billion into investments in rebuilding Australian manufacturing, or whether it's any other reform that the government announces, you've got Peter Dutton and Angus Taylor and their colleagues who only know how to say no. These superannuation changes, almost none of your listeners will be affected by these changes. So less than half a per cent of superannuation account holders have accounts with more than $3 million in them.

This will mean that people who've done well and good luck to them, people who've managed to save and earn and get an account with more than $3 million will still have concessional tax arrangements for earnings on their super accounts, they'll just be less generous than they were before. But your listeners - the average superannuation account has $150,000 in it. There are - there are less than half a per cent of superannuation account holders with more than $3 million. You know, there is one superannuation account holder who has more than $400 million in their superannuation account.

King: Yeah, I read that.

Assistant Minister: The purpose of superannuation is to support Australians in their retirement [indistinct].

King: Well, you say that, but I notice Jim Chalmers our Treasurer, saying what he first wants to do is legislate the definition of superannuation. What is it, something that you can dip into whenever you feel like, or specifically something that's there for retirement?

Assistant Minister: Well, these are two quite separate issues. The tax arrangements, so less than half a per cent of Australians affected by the new concessional tax arrangements, so less generous for people over $3 million. This definition of super question is quite a separate set of policy questions, and it really goes to making sure that superannuation account holders, investors, superannuation funds, the finance sector have some real clarity and rules of the road to make sure there is certainty around the future of super and that is actually being used for its proper purpose, which is to fund the retirement of ordinary Australians and ordinary Australian workers. It's a Labor achievement. We're determined to make sure that the future of the superannuation sector is assured, and Australians can have confidence in the superannuation.

King: We're almost out of time, but there were a couple of things I did want to ask you about. You've been very instrumental in a bit of a breakthrough in trade discussions between Australia and China. Where is that up to at the moment?

Assistant Minister: Well, we are working very hard on making sure that we restore Australia's position in the region. And you'll have seen, and your listeners will have seen, a lot of outbound diplomacy in the Pacific and in Southeast Asia. We're determined also to stabilise the relationship with China. There are some difficult structural challenges there and the policy of the government has really not changed in terms of our approach to China, from the last government to this government. What has changed is our determination to stabilise the relationship, to take one step at a time. And that means that we'll cooperate where we can, we will cooperate where we can, but we'll disagree where we must, and we will put the national interest first.

It is good to see some encouraging early signs of some of these trade restrictions moving away. I want to see more evidence of Australian imports being allowed back into China. It has had a negative effect on Australian exporters, but also this set of trade impediments has been bad for Chinese consumers as well.

King: Right. There were a couple of other things. Just a quick yes or no. Everybody wants more detail on The Voice. Will we be getting more detail before the referendum? Yes or no?

Assistant Minister: Yes. There'll of course, be more detail. It's a very straightforward proposition.

King: Okay. Finally, I said we won't hold it against you this, you're a Rabbitohs supporter, but obviously looking forward to the start of the season. You're taking on the Sharkies, I think, your former Prime Minister's team, of course.

Assistant Minister: I'm really looking forward to that match. And with the greatest respect to all the Cronulla Sharks supporters out there, this is going to be a very big night for Rabbitohs.

King: Good on you. Thank you very much for coming in, Tim. Enjoy your stay in Newcastle and look forward to chatting you to you in the future.

Assistant Minister: See you next time I'm up.

King: Yes, have a good day. Tim Ayres is New South Wales Labor Senator.