Senator the Hon. Mathias Cormann
Minister for Finance and the Public Service
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for Western Australia
DAVID SPEERS: Now back to what’s been happening here at this G20 summit. As mentioned all eyes are on the meeting now underway between the two most powerful leaders in the United States and China. What’s Australia got out of this and what is it hoping will come from this meeting tonight. The Finance Minister, Mathias Cormann spoke to me earlier.
Mathias Cormann, thanks very much for your time.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Good to be here.
DAVID SPEERS: This meeting that is about to happen between President Trump and President Xi, first time they have met in more than a year. How important is it do you think?
MATHIAS CORMANN: It is very important. Everybody will be watching. This G20 has been very focussed on the importance of trade and investment as an engine for growth. The Prime Minister has been very persuasive and has had a very significant impact in terms of promoting our position, which is really in favour of open trade, open markets, free trade, competitive trade, making sure that all of our respective countries have the opportunity to sell our products and services around the world and to ensure that our customers are not penalised by excessive or inappropriate levels of tariffs.
DAVID SPEERS: So when we look at the two sides here, the US and China. Australia obviously shares a lot of the concerns the US has about China and about intellectual property theft and things like that?
MATHIAS CORMANN: There are a whole range of issues that quite legitimately need to be addressed, but they ought be addressed within the framework of our multilateral trading system, which has been the foundation of very successful economic growth and prosperity over decades … interrupted
DAVID SPEERS: As opposed to what? Imposing tariffs on China.
MATHIAS CORMANN: The Australian position has been consistent. We are against unilateral declarations of tariffs. We are against unilateral trade measures. We are against subsidies which essentially interfere with the proper, free and competitive trading arrangements around the world. But we are also against policies that undermine the importance of intellectual property, which is also an important feature of global trade, successful global trade.
DAVID SPEERS: Well indeed. Donald Trump has imposed unilateral tariffs of ten per cent on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods already. Would you describe that as a protectionist move?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We want to see the US and China resolve these issues. A trade war is in nobody’s interest. It is not in Australia’s interest, but it is not in the interest of people around the world either. These are the two … interrupted
DAVID SPEERS: Is that protectionism?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Our position is very clear. We are not in favour of unilateral trade measures. We recognise that there are issues that are to be worked through, but there is a framework within which that can happen. Certainly we are encouraged by the fact that the US and China are talking. There appears to be some positive developments. Hopefully in the wake of this G20 meeting and also in the wake of the bilateral meeting between President Trump and President Xi Jinping there will be some further positive developments.
DAVID SPEERS: But just be to clear on this, both sides China and the US, there has been retaliatory tariffs from China, Australia would like them both to stop it, to drop these tariffs.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Absolutely. We would like both of them to come to a more positive arrangement. We do not want to see a continuation of unilateral trade measures. That has been our consistent position all the way through. That is what the Prime Minister has strongly advocated for, in favour of open markets, free trade and the opportunity on Australia’s behalf, for Australian businesses to sell Australian products and services around the world and for our customers across Australia to have access to products that are competitively priced from all around the world.
DAVID SPEERS: You have had a chance along with the Prime Minister to meet some of the European leaders here as well this weekend, Theresa May as well, the British Prime Minister. How are the prospects looking of Australian trade deals with Europe and a post-Brexit UK?
MATHIAS CORMANN: We had a very good discussion both with Prime Minister May and also with the Presidents of the European Council Donald Tusk and the European Commission Jean-Claude Junker. We are involved in a process with the European Union, which has been going for some time in relation to a free trade agreement with the European Union. The Presidents and Prime Minister have indicated a very strong desire to bring that to a conclusion sooner rather than later. So hopefully we will have some more to say about that in the not too distant future. In relation to the United Kingdom, we are ready. We are keen to conclude a very good deal with the United Kingdom as soon as they are in a position to enter into such a deal with us. At the moment there is clearly still a lot of work to be done between Europe and the United Kingdom to resolve the terms and conditions of Brexit.
DAVID SPEERS: Well indeed. That Brexit deal that Theresa May is trying to negotiate through her own Parliament as well. There are some concerns that it could limit the ability of countries like Australia or the US, striking trade deals with the UK. Is that a concern?
MATHIAS CORMANN: There is a lot of commentary at the moment. I do not think anybody knows with any certainty as to where that is ultimately going to land. There is a deal that has been put before the Parliament. On the basis of that deal we believe that there is an opportunity for Australia to enter into discussions and to conclude a trade agreement with the United Kingdom reasonably swiftly. But any such deal can only come into effect after the United Kingdom has left the European Union and after certain transition arrangements have played out.
DAVID SPEERS: What is the sense you have picked up here in Buenos Aires about the global economy? Are you worried about the direction it is heading? Or optimistic?
MATHIAS CORMANN: From an Australian point of view we are optimistic, quietly optimistic. The International Monetary Fund recently downgraded their global economic growth outlook slightly, but it is still better than what it was when we came into Government. It is uneven around the world. Some of the downside risks, in particular in relation to international trade have sadly materialised. But hopefully some of these issues can be addressed in a better fashion in the not too distant future. Broadly speaking we are optimistic. It is a matter of making sure that the right decisions continue to be made.
DAVID SPEERS: Now has the issue of whether Australia should shift its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem come up with any leaders. We know that it didn’t come up with Donald Trump. Has anyone been talking about this?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Not in a substantial fashion. There has been some discussion about the process, in the meeting between the Prime Minister and Prime Minister May. There certainly has been a discussion about the process that Australia is engaged in. It is well understood that we are engaging in a process to assess Australia’s position, which will come to a conclusion in the next little while.
DAVID SPEERS: Did Theresa May express any view as to what Australia should do?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I am not going to go into the specifics. It was essentially a process conversation. But from the Australian point of view, our position is well understood. We are committed to a two state solution We note that there has not been any progress in relation to that for a very, very long time. It is entirely appropriate for Australia to consider whether there is a better way to secure that two state solution, which overwhelmingly people want to see achieved.
DAVID SPEERS: I know Scott Morrison said he would be talking to leaders during the summit season, was it Theresa May who raised it? Has he raised it with anyone?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Again, I am not going to go into all of the details. It was discussed in the discussion in the meeting between Prime Minster Morrison and Prime Minister May. But it was fundamentally a process discussion.
DAVID SPEERS: And there will be a decision on this by the end of the year?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is the timetable. There has been no change to the timetable.
DAVID SPEERS: You are about to jump on a long flight home, well back Canberra at least, for the final sitting week of Parliament for the year. There is a number of things the Government would like to get done by the time Parliament rises at the end of this week. One of them is the encryption bill, the other one is, the Prime Minister said this back in the Wentworth By-election campaign, removing the legal right, at least for religious schools when it comes to expelling or denying enrolment for gay kids. Are both of those things going to happen this week?
MATHIAS CORMANN: Certainly in the Senate there is a time set aside to deal with the issue of, dealing with the issue of potential discrimination of gay kids, changes to the Sexual Discrimination Act. So that will be dealt with in the Senate. The Government is of the view that that should happen, but with appropriate protections for schools in terms of their capacity to set reasonable rules, for example in terms of the conduct within their schools that is relevant to them as religious schools …interrupted
DAVID SPEERS: This seems to come down to a debate about whether schools should still insist on kids going to chapel.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Religious schools should be able to set reasonable rules in relation to the conduct within their schools. That is an issue that is going to be debated in the context of the Parliament next week. But, yes, the very important focus for us next week in the context of keeping our community safe is to ensure that terrorists, child sexual offenders and serious criminals cannot use encrypted communications through Whatsapp and the like to do their terrible business beyond the reach of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. We are very disappointed that Labor is playing games with this. Based on all of the advice from our intelligence agencies it is very important for us to deal with this swiftly. We are entering a period that is particularly risky in relation to these sorts of matters …interrupted
DAVID SPEERS: The Christmas period?
MATHIAS CORMANN: That is right. That is the best available advice to the Government. To think that Labor would want terrorists to be able to communicate with each other beyond the reach of (law enforcement and intelligence agencies) … interrupted
DAVID SPEERS: In fairness I do not think Labor wants terrorists to be able to do that, but it is concerned, as some tech giants are about security breaches, this could open Australia up to more hacking, jobs could be lost offshore it says as well.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I think that Labor are using excuses. Clearly, all of the best available advice to the Government is that we need to give our intelligence and law enforcement agencies the capacity to appropriately monitor the activities of potential terrorists, child sex offenders and serious criminals. This is the week when this needs to be done. Labor should, quite frankly, come on board.
DAVID SPEERS: Finally, a lot of, well it has been a tough week for the Liberal party and a lot of debate about what the Party really stands for. Who do you, as one of the Government’s most senior figure Mathias Cormann, who do you think, what is a real Liberal?
MATHIAS CORMANN: I can tell you why I am in the Liberal party. I am in the Liberal party because I believe that policies which support individual freedom, free enterprise, reward for effort, encouraging people to stretch themselves, take risks, have a go and all of that backed up with an appropriately well targeted social safety net, delivers the best outcomes for individuals, their families and the communities they live in. I believe that an agenda that is based on those values has delivered amazing living standards compared to the alternative, which is this anti-business, politics of envy, class warfare, lowest common denominator, equality of outcomes type political agenda, which is prosecuted by Bill Shorten, which would weaken our country and which would leave all Australians worse off.
DAVID SPEERS: Do you have any sort of message though to your colleagues. Because they are all out there making these arguments about we are too right wing, too left wing, not enough women, all these sort of things.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I tell you what, all of my colleagues, we are all adults. We all know what we are doing. We all know what we are here for. We are here to deliver the best possible outcomes for the Australian people. The reason I am in politics is because I want to help ensure that Australians today and into the future have the best possible opportunity to get ahead, that we are as strong, as prosperous and as safe as a country as we possibly can be. I will continue to work to help secure that for as long as I am involved in this job.
DAVID SPEERS: Do you get the sense that there is despair about when the election… interrupted
MATHIAS CORMANN: No.
DAVID SPEERS: … people are now running of the rails.
MATHIAS CORMANN: I remember 2001 when the Labor party thought they had the election in the bag and Kim Beazley was way more electable than Bill Shorten is. All of those Labor people from Bill Shorten down who are getting really cocky, would do well to have another look at what happened in 2001.
DAVID SPEERS: Mathias Cormann, thanks so much for joining us.
MATHIAS CORMANN: Always good to talk to you.