ABC Afternoon Briefing

13 May 2024



Greg Jennett, Host: We have a panel including Assistant Trade Minister Tim Ayres. He's with us here, along with the Nationals frontbencher, Michael McCormack. Welcome to both Michael and Tim. We can't talk about everything in the budget, Tim, but let's start with something that I know to be dear to your heart. Future Made in Australia. So, we're being told this isn't about sinking taxpayers’ money into picking winners. What is it then?



Senator Tim Ayres, Assistant Minister for Trade and Manufacturing: Well, you'll find out on Tuesday night, Greg, just along with the rest of Australia. There have been some early announcements made in the Future Made in Australia context, and they send a really clear message about what the priorities of the government are here. We have a historic opportunity in Australia with our comparative advantages, the advantages that we have in the ground, the advantages we have in energy terms above the ground, our vast solar and wind resources, and of course, our people, to build the energies of the future to make sure that Australian industry can compete on the world stage. That's going to be our core focus of the budget tomorrow night. And we want to see, the Albanese government wants to see, stronger manufacturing, bigger industry, good jobs in our outer suburbs, in our regions, to position Australia for the future.



Greg: Sure, but is it about processing ores and things to an intermediate level so you add value to them or taking it all the way through, as solar sunshot appears to be, to full fabrication and manufacturing of a product, in this case solar panels? Why does it have to be the latter?



Senator Ayres: Well, you'll see the full scope and scale of the government's policy framework tomorrow night. But in all of these areas, in critical minerals, we capture only a fraction of the value in Australia if all we do is dig up the ore and sell it overseas. Now, these are good jobs in mining, high tech good jobs, but we capture a fraction of the value of that. If we can build our comparative advantage in our national interest to do more processing onshore, that means good jobs, growing industrial capability and a stronger future for Australia in our region.



Greg: All right, Michael, everyone's critical of these government interventions and subsidies until they arrive in your own backyard or in a business. You know, let's say in Riverina, in your case, do you have an open mind towards Future Made in Australia, or do you see it as overly ambitious and unnecessary risk for taxpayers’ money?



Michael McCormack: Jim Chalmers was the first Treasurer in a quarter of a century not to use the word, not to use the word infrastructure in last year's budget. And so far, all we've seen two years under Labor is, in the infrastructure space, Labor delay, cut or stall or cancel any piece of infrastructure, certainly in regional Australia. Tim talks and Labor talks about Made in Australia and they're paying $107 million to our WA sheep farmers to stop farming, phasing out an industry which has provided so many jobs, so many jobs made in Australia. When the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, says this is a true Labor Budget, he's right.



Greg: Right. Well, I think the argument against that one made by Murray Watt over the weekend is that the funding that goes with winding up live sheep exports, since you take us to that topic, is actually to grow domestic value, adding abattoirs and the like, particularly in Western Australia.



Michael: Good luck with that. It's just not going to happen. Where are they going to find the labour? I mean, it's so seasonal over there. And it also sends a message to our Middle Eastern trading partners, and Tim represents them. You know, they are miffed by the fact that they won't now have sheep for their religious festivals and for their own food security. I mean, and Australia has the best animal husbandry welfare standards on those ships in the world. And so that market will be taken up by a country which doesn't give two hoots about animal welfare.



Greg: All right, take that on. Tim Ayres, it is your job, when you're not here, to be talking to countries like UAE, Qatar and other others. How are you going to explain this?



Senator Ayres: Well, firstly, I'll take Michael's response to an answer on the question about future made in Australia to talk about live sheep exports as tacit consent from Michael that we do need to be investing more in the future of Australian manufacturing. We do need to see Australian manufacturing grow. Now, as for live sheep exports, this is another example of the government doing what we said we would do. We were very clear with the electorate that the live sheep export trade had lost its social licence and that is a position that is supported not only in the rest of Australia, but supported within Western Australia as well. Now, of course, there is anxiety and apprehension inside the sheep farming community in Western Australia. I absolutely respect that and understand it. It is an industry, though, that has been in decline year after year after year, down now to very small figures. Less than $100 million, offset against an industry exporting boxed meat to the rest of the world of about $4.5 billion. That's where the focus of the government is now going to be on meat exports around the world. I'm out there, along with Trade Minister Don Farrell, fighting for market access for Australian farmers in meat, in our grain exports, every day of the week. That is the focus of the government. But we are determined to support this industry through its final closing down and to work with the Western Australian government and others to build good jobs in those areas.



Michael: Greg, it's the talking points out of the cut the live cattle trade in June 2011. It's the same talking points. The industry's failing, you know, we need to build more abattoirs. And what happened then, within days of that stupid knee jerk reaction to a television programme, was the fact that cattle prices plummeted everywhere, including in Wagga Wagga saleyards, because they thought that all those long-horned cattle were going to come south. And the same will happen here. The sheep price will go through the floor and it's on Labor's watch.



Greg: Why won't there be opportunity in areas like the Riverina or the east coast, more generally, to go to chilled meat and export it to the very markets?



Michael: Well, for a start, they don't want chilled meat. They want the live sheep for their festivals, for their religious customs, all of that. They want the live sheep. The trade is not broken. The supply chain model is not broken. And, you know, I just heard Tim say, well, it's less than $100 million. Less than 100 million. It's still an industry. It's still a viable industry. And we're paying farmers to stop farming. That's the Labour way. It annoys me so much.



Greg: Let's move on. Four Corners report tonight, Tim Ayres, will quote a man going by the name of Eric, who was a former operative of the Chinese government, telling his story about having been active here. It's not clear that he was monitored at all times during that period by the relevant authorities. He subsequently reported his activities to them. Can we be confident that our agencies are on top of these foreign agents, in this case Chinese?



Senator Ayres: Well, we can absolutely be confident about the strength of Australia's security agencies and the work that they do every day to protect Australia's national security. I can't comment on the story itself. I haven't seen it. I've seen some of the reporting of it. But the fact remains that security agencies have been very clear with Australians, whether they are working in government or in the media or in the private sector, that the risks of foreign espionage are there, that the agencies are working hard on these questions. They are well resourced and, of course, what they need is…



Greg: They are well resourced, but is there an aversion to using the powers they have on foreign interference and espionage, that is, in our courts?



Senator Ayres: Well, I think what we've seen is the agencies work very carefully. And I think what you've seen is people like Mike Burgess in a more public way, because that's what's necessary to convey the importance of being resolute and vigilant about espionage risks. The kind of behaviour that is described is illegal in Australia. The security agencies don't hesitate to do their work, and I think there is support across the parliament for that kind of work.



Greg: Now, I'm sure that's right. Michael, you were senior in the government that introduced foreign interference laws, and you might remember at the time there were agency heads saying, yep, once we've got these, we won't just quietly usher operatives out through an airport gate, we'll pursue them through the courts. Has that happened?



Michael: Well, look, firstly, this is a test for the government, but I've got every faith in, as Tim has said, our national security agencies. ASIO, Australian Federal police, I've got every faith in their ability to make sure that they put Australia’s security number one, and they will do that. And I've got every faith in them to do just that. It is a test for the government. They need to make sure that when it comes to those laws, that they absolutely follow through on them and make sure that our security is what it should be.



Greg: All right, quick final one to both of you. The South Australian government has flagged an intention to at least examine the legalities of a state-based approach to better age supervision on young social media users. Most of us would err towards the view this was national. I guess we'll wait and see what Robert French comes up with. Does it cause you any angst, Tim Ayres, that a state would look at going alone on this?



Senator Ayres: It certainly doesn't cause me any angst, and I think Peter Malinauskas is reflecting the fears and apprehensions of parents out there about the often-pernicious impact that social media has on their kids and on their kids’ lives. There is deep concern across the Australian community about the impact of social media misinformation and disinformation, the role that social media has played. We've seen recently social media companies who have refused to obey Australian law. This is an area where I think there's a lot of interest and I do think an inquiry by Robert French, the outcomes will be watched, not just in South Australia and around the country, but these are issues that require close examination.



Greg: Well, as eminent legal minds go, they don't come much better than Robert French. Michael?



Michael: Well, let's rise above the politics here. Look, I know the Premier of South Australia's got a young family. I'm sure that the Liberals in South Australia, if it is good policy, they'll support it. And look, we need to do everything we can to get rid of some of these ills and evils in the social media space. It's too important not to. And our young people are relying on us to make sure we get it right and get it right now.



Greg: I think that's a view that transcends parliaments, whether it be the federal one or any of the states. Tim Ayres, Michael McCormick, thanks both for joining us once again, I won’t hold you back and go well in Budget week.



Senator Ayres: Thanks Greg. Thanks Michael.