Outback Radio

04 September 2023


Rod Corfe, Host: The Assistant Minister for Trade, Assistant Minister for Manufacturing, Senator Tim Ayres, good morning.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Trade Minister and Assistant Minister for Manufacturing: G’day, mate. It’s good to be on the show. As I always say, it’s great to have a bit of country music. There’s not enough of that in Canberra, that’s for sure.

Rod Corfe: We’ll have to see if we can set up a station down there.

Assistant Minister: Mate, you’d be so popular. There’s not enough country music on radio. It’s good to hear, a bit of Morgan Wallen.

Rod Corfe: Wonderful stuff. Now, when we last spoke you were about to get on planes and head across to India for numerous meetings.

Assistant Minister: Well, the G20 Trade Ministers’ Meeting was in India, and also what they call the B20. I led a business delegation led by the Business Council of Australia to meet with the leadership of the Indian business community in New Delhi as well. So it was an opportunity, the G20, for all the Trade Ministers to get together but, of course, for Australia’s national interest, it wasn’t just the multi-lateral forum that we were engaged in; it was the opportunity to engage directly with my counterparts, trade ministers from, in particular, the European Union, India, the United States and a range of other meetings. It was a very useful set of engagements to press Australia’s national interest.

Rod Corfe: And one aim – strengthening the rules-based trading system.

Assistant Minister: Well, that’s right, Rod. Australia is a trading nation. We’re a medium-sized economy on the edge of the fastest-growing region of the world in human history. Our future prosperity and our success and, indeed, our contribution to a peaceful region rests in no small part on our capacity to be able to trade effectively with the rest of the world. So more than many countries, we rely upon a fair, open rules-based trading system.

And the World Trade Organization is a critical part of that, and Australia’s role here is to press for fairer rules, particularly in areas like agricultural trade, to press for more market access for Australian farmers and Australian agricultural products and Australian agricultural technology, to campaign against subsidies that distort agricultural production.

You know, Australian farmers are not subsidised like farmers in the rest of – in some of our competitor economies, the European Union, the United States and, indeed, in India. There aren’t trade barriers in Australia. So our farming community, our agricultural system is competitive, it is lean, it is highly productive and efficient. And a key part of Australia’s national interest here is to argue for less barriers to trade so that our high-quality, sustainable agricultural produce has access to more markets. That’s good for food security around the world. It’s good, in fact, in environmental and emissions terms. Australian agriculture is low emissions agriculture. And that’s one of the key issues that senior Trade Minister Don Farrell presses in his engagements, and one of the ones that at my level, in my work, we are determined to push forward with more access for Australian agriculture and less subsidies of inefficient production overseas.

Rod Corfe: And is there the possibility for Australia to actually grow our trade to India and get more money?

Assistant Minister: Well, India is a massive market. You know, one of the key focuses for Don Farrell and the Albanese Government is trade diversification. That means doing two things: diversifying our markets and, secondly, diversifying the products that we offer to the world and pushing up the value chain so we’re exporting more complex manufactured products and services around the world.

India is now the largest population in the world, a growing economy, an economy that’s projecting more capacity and more power in the region. That is a very welcome development. And this was an excellent opportunity to engage with Indian Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal over the next phase of Australia’s trade relationship with India.

We’ve got a first phase trade agreement with India. That has been very successful. It has made a commercially meaningful difference for Australian businesses exporting into India. The Albanese Government is engaged very deeply in a process of negotiation for the next round Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement with India. That is the holy grail here in our trade relationship with India. That is the comprehensive agreement that will cover much more of our economy, and we are determined to press through with that.

We’ve made a lot of progress. It was good to be able to put my shoulder behind the wheel and add a bit more momentum to that process and to talk directly to the Minister but also to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in India, the leadership of the Indian business community, about the value to them and to the Australian business community of this agreement. This is a very important agreement in commercial terms for Australia but also for our trade diversification, to make sure that we’re strengthening our economic relationship with India, who have become such an important partner to us more broadly.

Rod Corfe: And was it around the time that you were there that they landed a rocket on the dark side of the moon?

Assistant Minister: Mate, it was amazing. I landed in Bengaluru Airport an hour later. As I was waiting for my transfer flight, you could see the moon landing that the Indians achieved. Such an extraordinary achievement, and you could hear throughout the airport the cheering and clapping. Such a source of enormous pride and happiness right across India. It was just absolutely visible in the crowds at the airport how excited they were.

It really framed up the three or four days that I was there in India, the pride in that achievement. And it is a remarkable thing to be able to land a spacecraft on the South Pole of the moon, to achieve a soft landing. And it just shows how far that economy has come. You know, 75 years since Indian independence, that is a remarkable achievement to land a spacecraft on the south pole of the moon. And I felt like a little kid again watching it happen. It was quite a moment.

Rod Corfe: We’re speaking with Senator Tim Ayres. It’s remarkable when the majority of the country can work together, and that is what you’re hoping will happen with the Voice?

Assistant Minister: Yes, I am. I’m always an optimist about the Voice and about this referendum. I mean, every referendum is a challenge. Every referendum faces formidable obstacles, particularly when the federal opposition led by Peter Dutton has taken such an extraordinarily extremist and oppositionist approach to the Voice.

Now, I think your listeners will recall that at every time where an advance is made in these areas that there are voices who say that the sky will fall in. You know, that’s what happens in Australian politics – that there’s always people, if they remember whether it was with Mabo, whether it was with land rights legislation – in fact, even with the equal marriage referendum there were people saying the most extraordinary things would happen. With Mabo they said that people would be losing their backyards. You know, remember John Howard held up that map of Australia that said, “Oh, well, everything’s about to change radically.” Well, it didn’t. It didn’t change radically. With the equal marriage referendum there were people out there saying all sorts of wild things would happen. Well, they didn’t happen.

And there is a bit of a sort of sky-is-gonna-fall-in brigade in Australian politics who always want to catastrophise, who always want to say the most extraordinary, outlandish things. And my experience is that Australian voters actually pay attention, they weigh up the arguments carefully and make a good decision at the end of the day. And that’s what I think will happen, particularly as the formal campaign for the referendum has begun and people’s attention turns from not the sort of wild arguments that have been made about, you know, the sky falling in if this is adopted but what is the actual question that is the focus of the referendum? What is the meaningful impact that having Recognition through a Voice in Parliament will have in dealing with the practical issues that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people face around Australia?

Nobody is claiming that this is going to solve every problem that there is in communities. But what it is going to mean is that people are going to be required to work together, that communities are going to be required to work together, that Aboriginal people will have a voice, a voice from the Australian communities right across Australia directed into Canberra rather than Canberra just projecting out. And that will over time make a very significant difference. And I think as the next six weeks proceed along there’ll be more and more focus on the real argument here.

Rod Corfe: And the fact of the matter is, things haven’t been working the way things are, so something has to happen.

Assistant Minister: Well, yeah. If you want more of the same, if you think everything’s okay now, then I suppose that’s – you’re not going to be persuaded that things need to change. But the only option that’s on the ballot paper here that involves change and an acceptance that the status quo is not good enough is voting Yes. It will never be a perfect answer. The structure of the Voice, the way it’s given expression will change over time, and that will be a sovereign matter for the Parliament to determine. That’s the way our parliamentary system works. That will be determined by the government of the day.

But you’d have to say after the decade after decade after decade of very poor outcomes in terms of the practical issues here – school attendance, life expectancy, health outcomes, outcomes in the criminal justice system, income levels, employment levels, the relationship between all of these things – you know, something’s got to change. And Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been through quite a process, and this is what they are asking for. It would be pretty mean-spirited to turn them down in my view.

And what is being asked for here is recognition of 65,000 years of continuous culture in our Constitution through a Voice to Parliament. I believe and the Government believes that this will make a meaningful, practical difference, and it’s a real moment I think for unity and an expression of togetherness here that could make a real difference.

The advertising campaign for the Yes campaign launched tonight. It’s an ad I think that projects the kind of optimism and the kind of spirit of the Yes campaign that will, I think, engage voters in a really constructive way with the arguments. And I’m looking forward to having more and more discussions over the next six weeks about this. I think it matters. I think it matters for the future not just of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who need to see change, but it also matters for the future of our country. I think it makes Australia stronger if we are reckoning more effectively with our past. It makes Australia stronger to have more - a more stronger voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people at the national level shaping the policy outcomes that are going to make their lives better.

I tell you what, in my experience as a trade minister, Rod, you know, this is the eyes of the world on Australia on this question. It is often raised with me, including by – including at Ministerial level what this means for Australia. There is a lot of interest in this. And I think we’re just going to keep working through the discussion, working through the arguments. And I think when voters focus on what is the question in front of them, there really is only one answer is, and that is voting Yes for Constitutional change here because it will make a difference for all of us.

Rod Corfe: All right. And finally, you’re back in Canberra. One topic that is getting a bit of interest is the housing bill.

Assistant Minister: Well, it is a source of real disappointment that the politics of ‘no’ here in Canberra have taken over. There is an extraordinarily close relationship now between the Liberal and National and Greens political parties trying to use their numbers in the Senate to block change.

In this case, the government went to the election with a very broad agenda on housing. It is one of the issues that really confronts many Australian families, particularly young Australian families – housing insecurity. There is a broad suite of policy options here that we had a mandate for in the election, and the government has added to those. So, there is a very strong commitment from the Albanese Government to strengthen the Federal Government’s role working with the states to deliver more housing supply. One component of that is this Housing Australia Future Fund that will build 30,000 additional homes over the next five years. Those will be homes for low-income Australians – affordable and community housing homes – and it is being blocked.

It is the most extraordinary negative politics for the Greens and David Littleproud and Peter Dutton to be getting together to knock this off in their own partisan interest rather than in the national interest here. Now, I understand people want to argue for more, and I think that’s okay. People should be arguing for more, because this is a big set of public policy challenges here to make sure we’ve got enough homes for Australians and that houses are affordable. It’s okay to argue for more. It’s not okay for Peter Dutton and David Littleproud and the Greens political party to knock over 30,000 homes, which is what is happening here.

And the government will re-introduce this legislation. It is being re-introduced in the House of Representatives. It will come back to the Senate. What I want to see is the Senate crossbench engage meaningfully with the government about making sure that we deliver this important reform. It really beggars belief that you could be so self‑interested, so partisan that you can’t see the public interest here. That’s what’s happened, and over the course of October this legislation will come back to the Senate. And, you know, if we get an indication from the Greens political party or from the Coalition, indeed, that they are prepared to actually back the public interest here, it will come back sooner.

Rod Corfe: All right. Well, we’ll watch that one. And we’ll catch up with you in a fortnight.

Assistant Minister: Good on you, Rod. Terrific.

Rod Corfe: Thank you for your time.