Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News Afternoon Agenda



KIERAN GILBERT: The Trade Minister, Don Farrell, is in Brussels to finalise trade negotiations with the European Union, but there are still key disagreements between the two sides. One of those being what's known as geographical indicators, things like feta, parmesan, or prosecco. I spoke earlier in the week with the Trade Minister about these stumbling blocks. 


DON FARRELL: We have made no concessions in respect to the so-called geographical indicators. What I said to the Europeans, over and over again, is that for Australians of European background, geographical indicators just aren't an economic issue, they're an emotional issue. It's a way that those Europeans can maintain a link to the motherland. They're very attached to them and so is the Government.

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KIERAN GILBERT: For more on those hurdles slowing down progress in the Australia-EU trade deal, I spoke a short time ago to the Minister for Agriculture and Emergency Management, Murray Watt. 

MURRAY WATT: It's obviously not over yet, Kieran, and we're going to keep fighting very hard between Don Farrell, myself, and a number of other ministers to get the very best deal that we can from the EU free-trade agreement. But it's fair to say that we're pretty disappointed with the offer that's on the table from the EU at this point in time.

I actually spoke to Don last night. He's still in Europe having come out of two days of meetings with the EU trade negotiators, and the offer that's currently on the table from the EU falls well short of what we think is acceptable. And, I think, importantly, it's also well short of what the EU have been prepared to do in reaching free-trade agreements with other countries.

So we've gone into this seeking, you know, the very best, but reasonable, market access for beef producers, sheep, sugar, grains, wine, horticulture, all of those products that we know Australian producers are so good at producing and we do want to open up that EU market but we're not going to just do any deal for the sake of it, it's got to be a deal that's in our national interests. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Is there any reason why you could see the EU not offering Australia the same playing field as they have other trading partners?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, I guess the world has probably changed a little bit over the last couple of years compared to when it last did those free-trade agreements with other countries, and I was talking to Don last night and even issues that are happening in Ukraine are impacting on these kind of negotiations. So obviously Ukraine is a very big grain producer among other agricultural products and traditionally they have sent products out through the Black Sea. That's been closed off, so they've been getting products out through neighbouring the countries and that has had an impact on the kind of prices that farmers in those countries are receiving. So farmers are concerned about competition from other countries.

But the point that we've always made, and I did this myself when I was in Europe earlier this year, is that we think that we can get some good market access that makes a big difference for Australian producers, but it would still be a relatively small fraction of the whole EU market. So we don't expect to see the EU farm industry swamped with Australian products, but even if we got the amount we're asking for, that would make a big difference for Australian producers.

So, as I say, we haven't given up yet. We're going to keep fighting hard and Don was pleased that the EU has agreed to another round of negotiations to keep those talks going. So while ever you're talking there's always hope, but we don't want to just get a deal for the sake of it, and we will keep fighting for the best possible deal.

I guess the other point from the EU's perspective is that we do want to make sure that this is a deal that's good for both sides, that's what trade's about, and we know that Australia has lots of critical minerals that EU car makers and other manufacturers are keen to get their hands on. We can offer them preferential treatment around that if they come to a deal. So there is something in it for the EU as well. But as I say, it's got to be a fair deal for Australia. 

KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, and I guess in the longer term you will think about other energy solutions, I know Germany's a big focus on hydrogen and so on as well. But in the short term, did - the big stumbling blocks, were they those things known as geographical indicators, produce such as parmesan or prosecco, feta, that they wanted those names protected from our producers like, you know, happened with champagne? Is that the key stumbling block?

MURRAY WATT: I guess there's probably two stumbling blocks at the moment, Kieran. The first, as I say, is the offer from the EU as to how much beef, sheep, grains, sugar, etc, they're prepared to take in and reduce tariffs for is just nowhere near what we think is acceptable for our producers but the geographic indicators issue that you're talking about is certainly the other stumbling block. Basically what this is about is that the EU doesn't want Australian producers of products like prosecco, feta, parmesan, to be able to use that terminology. They say that they are European terms that describe particular regions.

Of course, we say that prosecco is a grape variety, not a regional issue, and, you know, we've pointed out several times that just as those terms are important to European producers who have got lots of family history attached to those products, so do Australian producers. I mean, Don and I have both met the guy in Australia who was the leader of making prosecco when it was first originated here. He brought the vines from his village in Italy. So we've got a strong cultural attachment to those terms as well.

And I guess, again, the EU has been able to come to reasonable arrangements with other countries about how they treat those geographic indicators in free-trade agreements and all we're asking for is a reasonable deal ourselves. 

KIERAN GILBERT: So a bit of a stumbling block there but talks continue. Some improvement on another front where we've had difficulties in China, we reported the news, we broke the news earlier in the week of relations, stone fruit and other fruit being now allowed in greater numbers to China. This is a big step forward. We have a lot of viewers, farmers, and members of the horticulture industry, that watch this program and I know it's been well received, this development. 

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that was another really positive development in the last few days, Kieran, and a really big win for our horticulture sector. Obviously, even with the trade impediments that we've experienced with China in recent years, it remains our biggest agricultural market. We've already been able to get cotton back in there in the same way we used to. We're making very good progress on barley. We recently announced that timber exports are going to reopen to China and the latest is stone fruit and a number of other horticultural products. Basically, the way imports to China work is that their customs department has a list of establishments or farms that they will take goods from. They haven't been prepared to update that list, but when it comes to horticultural products for a couple of years and that's meant that we haven't been able to get new producers on the list who can export to China, and they've now agreed to do that. So that's really good news for our citrus producers, our stone fruit producers, cherry producers, a whole range of horticultural producers who can now look forward to being able to get back into China in a way that they haven't been able to for a couple of years. 

KIERAN GILBERT: How far away are we from normalising the trade ties more broadly, getting rid of the rest of the trade barriers that have been imposed in recent years by China?

MURRAY WATT: Well, of course, our position has been, and remains, that we want to see all of those trade impediments removed and, of course, there's still some in place. Wine is probably the most notable. Some of the crayfish and rock lobsters, even beef processing establishments, some abattoirs aren't allowed to import into China at the moment. So there's still barriers there for a range of products and we think that they should all come down, those barriers. But I guess what we're trying to do is work true them systematically, one by one, and I think we can already see that there's been some good progress. Don's done a great job as the Trade Minister, Penny Wong, Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister himself, and importantly the officials and the public servants who work in the Agricultural Department, in the Foreign Affairs and Trade, they do a power of work behind the scenes to resolve these things. We're hopeful that we will be able to reduce those barriers for other products in the coming weeks and months as well. 

KIERAN GILBERT: I mentioned you're in Bundaberg at the start of the interview. You've announced details of the Bundaberg flood levy. Is that part of that overhaul of the flood warning and infrastructure system that you announced in the last couple of months?

MURRAY WATT: It's actually in addition to that, Kieran. But I guess that shows you the range of the investments that the Albanese Government is making in disaster readiness. Since we came to power, I guess, one of the key things we've been trying to do is make sure that Australia is much better prepared for future disasters than we were in the past. Yesterday, you might have seen that I announced the first round of funding from our new Disaster Ready Fund. So that was nearly $400 million in joint Federal State investment in about 187 projects around the country. Flood levies, sea walls, bushfire evacuation centres, flood mapping, communications, the kind of things that we know keep people safe and reduce taxpayer repair bills. But what I've done today in Bundaberg with the State Minister and Tom Smith, the State member, is announce, again, 50/50 funding between the Federal and State Government to build the Bundaberg flood levy.

This is, for your viewers interstate, the most important disaster mitigation project in Queensland. It's been at the top of the list for the Queensland Government for a number of years now. You might remember back in 2013 they had terrible flooding in Bundaberg with people being rescued from roofs and this flood levy, now that we've committed the funding, means that it will protect about 600 homes and buildings in Bundaberg. Suncorp, the main insurer in Queensland, has said that they expect it would bring down insurance premiums by about $1,000 for the homes and commercial premises that benefit. So it's a big new investment in protecting people and trying to help with cost of living with insurance premiums.

KIERAN GILBERT: More broadly, the Disaster Ready Fund was announced yesterday. It's $400 million, just under 200 projects nationwide. Are we taking measures to mitigate - are these measures to mitigate against disasters like floods and fire? If so, what sort of things are we talking about in terms of that $400 million?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, that's exactly what it's about, Kieran. Of course, you know, as the Federal Government, we will always stand by communities when disasters happen and make sure there's recovery payments to help people get back on their feet. But we do know that we're going to be seeing more of this extreme weather into the future and prevention is always better than cure. So the more we can be investing now to prevent that kind of terrible damage that we've seen, it obviously saves people's lives, it saves their properties. But we spend billions of dollars as a country recovering from these disasters. There are estimates that say that for every dollar we spend on disaster mitigation or prevention, that saves us $9 in recovery. So it's actually good economics as well, quite apart from the benefits to people.

So, yeah, the Disaster Ready Fund that we announced yesterday is an overhaul of the fund that the Morrison Government had, and you might remember this one which basically racked up billions of dollars in funding that was available for investment in disaster mitigation and recovery, didn't build a single project in three years and earned the former government about $800 million in interest. And our view was that we were better off putting that money to work to protect people and help them with their insurance premiums and yesterday's announcement is the first round of that funding.

KIERAN GILBERT: And just finally, Peter Dutton has called for the Prime Minister and Katy Gallagher to explain in full their involvement behind the scenes with Brittany Higgins and her partner. Should people get a full explanation as to what went on prior to that story breaking publicly?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I haven't seen Peter Dutton's remarks today yet, but I've obviously seen some of the media reporting of this, and I've seen that the Prime Minister has already addressed this in comments that he made yesterday. So I think it's a bit unfortunate that Peter Dutton wants to try to play politics with this. I think this whole episode was a very sad one for the people who were involved, and I don't support his moves to try to politicise this at this point in time.

KIERAN GILBERT: Minister for Emergency Management and Agriculture, Murray Watt, appreciate it. 

MURRAY WATT: Thanks, Kieran.