Interview with Andrew Clennell, Sky News Sunday Agenda


SUBJECTS: China trade, Voice to Parliament, ABC, IR reforms

ANDREW CLENNELL: Let's go live to Brisbane now and bring in the Minister for Agriculture, Murray Watt. Thanks so much for joining us this Sunday morning. How significant is this deal to have China import our barley again? What's it worth and what's gone on behind the scenes to get us here?

MURRAY WATT: Well, good to be with you, Andrew. This is a very significant decision for Australia's agricultural industry. It's very welcome news for our grain producers and I think the entire Australian community. You'd be aware that our government has been working very hard since coming to office to stabilise our relationship with our country's major trading partner being China and this is the latest in a series of decisions that we've been able to secure from China to remove trade impediments that had been imposed on our agricultural products. Already over the last couple of months, we've managed to get China to remove impediments for things like cotton, horticulture products, timber products. But, of course, Friday's decision was one of the big ones, because prior to these impediments being imposed, China had been our biggest barley export market, with a value of nearly $1 billion a year. So, that's why our grain producers are so happy with this outcome, because it does restore access to our biggest market. This has taken a huge amount of work since we came to office, and I really pay tribute to people like Penny Wong, Don Farrell, but also the officials in my department, the Department of Agriculture, the Foreign Affairs Department and Industry. It has been a really united effort between government and industry, talking with the Chinese government, making advocacy representations. I think every Minister from our government who's met with their Chinese counterpart has raised this issue. So, it's a really fabulous outcome that was able to be announced on Friday.

ANDREW CLENNELL: Are you hopeful sanctions around wine might be lifted next and other sanctions?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, certainly. We definitely see this as a template for how we would like to resolve the issues that remain for wine. Again, China was our biggest export market for wine prior to the imposition of tariffs a couple of years ago. And the wine producers who I meet with on a regular basis in Australia are very keen to have this market reopened. We obviously brought action in the World Trade Organisation to resolve the dispute. But we've always said that we would much prefer to resolve these sorts of trade disputes through dialogue - that's managed to occur with barley, we'd certainly like to see that happen with wine. And there are some other products in particular things like beef establishments, beef processing establishments that remain having trade impediments, and we'd like to see them resolved as quickly as possible, too.

ANDREW CLENNELL: Have the Chinese government received anything in return? Received any concessions on the trade front or anything of that nature?

MURRAY WATT: No, they haven't, Andrew. We've just been very consistent in our position, arguing that we think that we should be following a rules-based trading system, that we thought that these tariffs were unfair. And what we've also argued is that this is in the interests of both countries. This isn't just about a benefit to Australia, it's also a benefit to China that they can regain access to Australia's high quality products. In the end, the decision from China was made on the basis that their barley importers, in particular their brewing companies, needed to have access and wanted to have access to Australian barley. So, this is a mutually beneficial outcome. I think the other thing to remember, Andrew, is that Australian producers have really learned through the last couple of years that we do need to have much more diverse markets. And for that reason our government is also putting a lot of effort into opening up new markets. You'll remember, Andrew, that I spoke to you a couple of weeks ago from India, which is potentially a very valuable market for our agricultural produce. And even just over the last twelve months, the Department of Agriculture has opened up new markets in about 100 cases around the world whether that be for stonefruit, other sorts of products, beef, sheep meat. So, we do need to make sure that we have those broader market options going forward as well.

ANDREW CLENNELL: Does all this indicate we'll get this visit from the PM to Beijing soon? And is there any news on Cheng Lei and her situation in detention or Yang Hengjun?

MURRAY WATT: Yeah, so in terms of the Prime Minister's visit, I mean, he has always said that it is his intention to visit China and - because, of course that invitation has been issued, but we don't see this as a transactional thing. We don't see it as you give us barley and we give you a Prime Ministerial visit. All of these things will be undertaken in due course. And I'm sure that the Prime Minister will undertake that visit in a time that fits his diary. In terms of Cheng Lei, this is also an issue. The Australians who are in detention in China is something that Penny Wong in particular, but other government officials have been making regular representations on. Unfortunately, at this stage, there hasn't been any movement at the Chinese end on this matter. But this is something that we'll keep making representations on.

ANDREW CLENNELL: All right, this Garma Festival this weekend, moving on to that, it's come against the backdrop of the government under pressure over The Voice. Let me be blunt about it. How tough is it looking now? And why can't the PM say a Makarrata Commission and a treaty will follow The Voice?

MURRAY WATT: Well, I genuinely believe that the 'yes' campaign can and will win the referendum, Andrew. And that's because, based on my own experience as I'm going around Queensland talking with people about The Voice, there are a lot of people who are still unsure about it. But when you talk through what it's really about, some very simple ideas, recognising our first peoples in our constitution, listening to them so that we get better results and better value for money, that's something that I think most people can get behind. So, I remain very confident that the referendum will succeed. I've seen the opinion polls. There'sis all sorts of polling out there at the moment, some more positive than others. But as I say, I think once people focus on what this is really about, rather than the unrelenting series of scare campaigns that we see from Peter Dutton and the opposition, I'm confident that we can get there. It obviously makes it harder that we don't have bipartisan support for this. And that is disappointing that the Liberal and National Party have chosen to oppose this for their own political means. We've got coalition members now openly talking with journalists about the fact that the reason they're opposing The Voice is because they want to damage the Prime Minister and damage the Labor Party for the next election. So, they're prepared to throw away the opportunity to actually bring the country together, to actually listen to people, to get better results and better value for money for their own political purposes. But we're going to stay positive about this. We're going to remind people that this is a real opportunity for once to do something different about indigenous disadvantage. And frankly, if we say no to this, then what we're basically saying is that we're happy with more of the same, that we're happy with much higher rates of indigenous incarceration, much lower life expectancy. What the Voice is about is simply recognising our first peoples and getting better results. And it's hard to imagine why anyone would actually disagree with that.

ANDREW CLENNELL: But the government is - they do want to support the Makarrata Commission and treaty, don't they? Because Anthony Albanese got up on election night, he said, "I commit to the Uluru Statement from the Heart" in full, and you've already put funding in the budget for the Makarrata Commission. So, do you concede the government would see those as the next steps? And what would they do? Would they involve reparations?

MURRAY WATT: Well, the Uluru Statement itself said that The Voice to Parliament and recognition of first peoples in our constitution would come before any other aspect of the Uluru statement, and that's for that reason, that the government's priority is to recognise people in our constitution and through a Voice to Parliament. That's what we're focused on and that's the only thing that this referendum is about. Now, you've raised reparations, and that is one of many scare campaigns that's being run by the opposition. Every single week, they have a new scare campaign about what The Voice will do. I'm expecting next week, The Voice is apparently going to cancel Christmas or something absurd like that, they just move from one scare campaign to the next.

ANDREW CLENNELL: All right, fair enough. But are you ruling out reparations? Or is that something that can happen from a Makarrata commission and a treaty?

MURRAY WATT: Well, this issue of reparations is something that Peter Dutton raised as for a reason why he didn't support the apology all those years ago. If you go back and look at what Peter Dutton was saying about the apology when he chose not to be present for the apology in the chamber, one of the things that he was saying was that it would open the door to damages. That was untrue and it's untrue that this will occur as a result of The Voice. And again, it's just one of the many scare campaigns that we see from the opposition rather than actually facing up to what this is about, simply setting up a body to advise the government about how we can get better results for indigenous people, that's all that we're talking about.


MURRAY WATT: We're not talking about reparations; we're not talking about all sorts of other scare campaigns that are being put up there. And the opposition say that they support recognition in the Constitution, they say they support listening to people, but they continue to put up these scare campaigns to shoot it down.

ANDREW CLENNELL: All right, let's move on. I wanted to ask about a couple of stories I had at the top of the show. Firstly, has the ABC done the wrong thing in terms of having this camera crew rock up with protesters at a senior executive of Woodside's home? It seems clear to me the protesters would never have been there unless four corners were doing a program on them.

MURRAY WATT: Well, I think this is a very worrying series of developments, Andrew, and I think that everyone, of course, has the right to feel safe in their own home, whether they're the CEO of a major Australian company or any other member of the public. I saw at the top of your show the statement made by the ABC about this that they're going to be investigating, and I think that needs to occur. You also mentioned the remarks that Michelle Rowland, the Minister, made in Parliament last week, that she has sought information about what has actually gone on here, and I think that's something that she will continue to do. So, I think the ABC does have a responsibility to explain what's happened here and to investigate it properly.

ANDREW CLENNELL: Is the ABC being apologetic enough here? Because, as I've revealed this morning, David Anderson has issued Miss O'Neil a statement of regret, but not apology. And the ABC were very clear to me on this yesterday, they said to me, "regrets in there, but not sorry."

MURRAY WATT: Well, I mean, I'll leave it for the ABC Managing Director to decide what sort of language he uses. And of course, the ABC does have editorial independence from the government of the day. But I think it is a good thing that the ABC Managing Director has said that this is being examined. And as I say, I think Michelle Rowland, as the Minister, will continue to seek further information as new developments come to hand.

ANDREW CLENNELL: And I've revealed this morning these confidentiality agreements the government is forcing employer groups to sign if they want to be involved in IR talks with government. Why is the government doing this? Why shouldn't employers be able to tell the public and indeed the media what the government is planning if they want to argue against it, particularly when the proposals seem more potentially harmful to employers than employees?

MURRAY WATT: Well, to be fair, Andrew, all participants in these negotiations have been asked to sign these agreements. Employer groups and unions. It's not only one side of the equation. And as Tony Burke has said to you in his statement, this is apparently something that the Business Council asked for. And I guess the idea is to promote a very free and frank discussion between people who are in the consultation process in order to get better legislation. I mean, ultimately, what this legislation is about is about ensuring that we have fairer workplaces where workers do have the opportunity to get better pay rises. We've been through a decade of deliberate wage stagnation from the Coalition government. We are now seeing wages starting to move, and I think most Australians support that, just as they support more secure employment. But obviously, we will listen to employer groups, we'll listen to unions about how we can have the best legislation possible. And this arrangement has been put forward by the Business Council, as far as I'm aware.

ANDREW CLENNELL: Agriculture Minister Murray Watt, thanks so much for your time this morning.