Interview with Michael Rowland, ABC News Breakfast

FRIDAY 19 MAY 2023


MICHAEL ROWLAND: Australia is pushing China to remove all remaining trade barriers after Beijing announced it will again accept Australian timber. It is, of course, welcome news for timber exporters who were suddenly cut off from the market in 2019. For more, the Agriculture and Forestry Minister, Murray Watt, joins us now from Brisbane.
Senator Watt, very good morning to you.

MURRAY WATT: Morning, Michael.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: So, what does this mean for Australia's timber industry?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, well, I think this is another really positive step forward in our government's efforts to try to stabilise our trading relationship with China. It's obviously something that everyone from the Prime Minister to Penny Wong and Don Farrell have been putting a lot of effort into since we were elected. And really what this means is that we now resume the opportunity to export timber products to China. Before the suspension was imposed by China about two and a half years ago, China was actually our largest export market for timber products. It was worth about $560 million to the timber industry at the time. And, of course, that's a massive market to lose. And while we have been able to find other markets in the meantime, nothing has really been able to make up for the loss of that market to the timber industry.
So, as I say, it's a very positive step. There's been a lot of work go on for some time now between officials of the Foreign Affairs and Trade Department and our Agriculture Department, and I pay a lot of credit to the work of those officials in being able to get us to this position.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: There are mixed views, as I'm sure you'd be aware, in the industry, Minister. Sure, there are many people in the industry saying, this is great, but there's some wariness and a lot of producers are gun-shy about the capricious nature of all of this. Can you understand lingering concerns within Australia's timber industry, even though this ban has now been lifted?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I can understand those concerns because people have obviously gone through a pretty difficult time losing that market. And frankly, those sort of concerns are held in other commodity markets as well that have suffered similar issues. And I think one of the things that Australian producers, and I think all Australians, have learned through this experience is that we do need to keep up those efforts to diversify our markets, to make sure that we're never in this sort of situation again, whether it be China or any other country. But the reality is that even with these impediments that we've had, China does remain our largest trading partner, including in agriculture. So, it is an important market to resume connection with.

I think the other important thing about this arrangement that we've come to with timber, Michael, is that the impediments here weren't so much about tariffs. It was about quarantine and biosecurity issues that China was saying our timber products had. And they're the same sorts of issues that China has argued is why they have stopped some of our beef exports and some of our other products. So, I think it's really pleasing that we've been able to come to an arrangement to resolve these issues with China and hopefully we can do something similar now in relation to beef and some of those other products where there have been very similar issues.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Do you honestly believe there are quarantine issues?

MURRAY WATT: Well, we have always disputed that those quarantine issues were genuine, just as we have disputed that those quarantine issues were genuine for beef and similar products that have suffered those penalties. But China is a sovereign country, and it makes its decisions. But the work that I was talking about, that officials have gone to - is basically involved demonstrating and trying to satisfy China that the quarantine issues aren't genuine. And it's really pleasing to see that China is now willing to work with us on this. I should also mention this is something that the Trade Minister Don Farrell did raise in his recent meetings in China. So, it's very pleasing to see that this outcome has happened so soon after that trip.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay, timber, tick. How close are we to a deal, for instance, on barley?

MURRAY WATT: Well, again, this was something that Don Farrell raised in the meetings that he had with China. And I understand there were some positive signals from China that they're keen to get that resolved. Obviously, the arrangement we came to with China when the WTO handed down its draft decision was that we would suspend our WTO action for three months to provide an opportunity for negotiation of a solution. We've always said that our preference is to resolve these issues by negotiation and dialogue rather than through legal challenges. And as I understand it from Don, having spoken to him last night, there were some positive signals on the barley front. So, we'd be hopeful that we could certainly get that resolved within that three month window. And of course, the next thing would be wine, because there are similar issues that face the wine industry. And if we can resolve barley having taken that WTO action, we'd be very hopeful that we can resolve the issues around wine without having to wait for the resolution - the finalisation of that WTO case as well.

MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay, Minister, appreciate your time this morning. Thank you.

MURRAY WATT: Thanks, Michael.