SKY NEWSDAY WITH TOM CONNELL
WEDNESDAY, 23 MARCH 2022
SUBJECTS: Australia’s relationship with India
TOM CONNELL, HOST: Welcome back. Trade talks resume between Australia and India this week. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison held a virtual summit with Indian leader Narendra Modi, another $280 million has been announced to strengthen economic ties but talks are yet to deliver a fully-fledged Free Trade Agreement. Both sides are talking about the prospect of signing one this year but it's yet to come with Labor taking aim at the Government, saying they should have inked an FTA by now. For more, let's bring in Labor’s Shadow Trade Minister. Madeleine King, thanks very much for your time. We know India has a very strongly protected economy, it's always going to be difficult to do a trade deal. What's your specific criticism of the Government here?
MADELEINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR TRADE: Well, good morning Tom, and good morning to all the viewers on Sky today. Well, the criticism is that they've been talking a big game with the India FTA for many years, and there's been literally no delivery. There may be some delivery in the minutes before midnight of an election.
But if we just go back to 2015, you had Andrew Robb, the then Minister for Trade, pledging an FTA with India before the end of that year. Then fast forward a little bit, in 2018, this Government handed down a report by Peter Varghese, former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which had 90 recommendations, a really thorough piece of work from a well-respected former diplomat and head of department. And that was completely ignored. That was four and a half years ago, and only one of those recommendations are taken up by the Government.
And now, last night, the Minister Tehan suddenly says he's going to update that report and go into an interim free trade deal, well about time and what have they been doing for nine years? So my point is, these people have been sitting on their hands, the Morison Government's been sitting on their hands. Before Morrison it was Turnbull and before that it was Abbott. So, it's all talk and no action with this mob.
CONNELL: Well, they’ve struck a lot of free trade deals though and a lot that were sitting in the backburner when Labor had been in office for six years so it's not all talk. I mean, they did several significant ones. Labor often is the holdout party or the one that debates these deals more closely, particularly around employment issues, that is, companies being able to employ foreign nationals in Australia. Do you have any concerns along those lines with a potential Indian FTA?
KING: We haven't seen the terms of this supposed agreement right yet, but I'm going to go back to what you mentioned about Labor’s position on trade agreements. And I'll remind you in those watching that the Indonesia free trade agreement with Australia was something that Labor started negotiations with and progressed after having an economic analysis, which is a sensible way to go into negotiations for a free trade agreement.
And under Prime Minister Julia Gillard, we started the commencement of negotiations with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. And I accept that free trade agreements take some time to come to fruition. But the point is under Prime Minister Rudd and Prime Minister Gillard with those two agreements, we didn't make false promises to the Australian people on how we would sign a free trade agreement – you know, head off to the signing ceremony, get a little trophy and pop it on the shelf. And that's what the Government's approach is.
CONNELL: But hang on, you didn't sign them, the Government signed them with, with Japan, with South Korea with China. And Indonesia as well, isn’t that the point? They’re the ones that signed them.
KING: But they don’t start them, and they also need our support, which we give, after we have considered the valid employment issues that you raised, because the free movement of labour-
CONNELL: But you’re saying starting them is harder than ending? Surely the hard part is finishing these agreements?
KING: I’m just saying you can’t forget that it requires a multiple layer of government expedition if you like. We have to do it with consecutive governments be they Labor or Liberal, and we have to work together on this, and we have. But my point about the Indian Free Trade Agreement is that there has been a lot of talk, a lot of pledges about being anywhere, a massive report from Peter Varghese which this Government has ignored. So, my point is-
CONNELL: When you say ignored, the Minister said that two thirds of the recommendations were implemented. What specifically has been ignored?
KING: Well, that's not what's come out in Senate Estimates; that two thirds is absolutely not true. Peter Varghese put as a flagship enterprise increasing our higher education links with India. Now, in the ultimate irony, Dan Tehan, now Trade Minister was the Higher Education Minister during the initial outbreak and heavy outbreak of COVID, when he let the higher education system entirely unsupported during the COVID outbreak. He was a minister that oversaw thousands of international students left to fend for themselves and ruined our reputation as an international higher education provider.
CONNELL: Okay, let’s just stick to this issue though, what recommendations, because a lot of them did relate to business as well, not just Government, what recommendations from that report should the Government have implemented, that it didn't?
KING: Well, there are recommendations around engaging more with the Indian diaspora, there's a whole chapter, chapter 18 on that report, in fact. And I note that in the Minister's speech last night, he said, well, they're going to do an investigation into how important the diaspora is. Great, but Peter Varghese did that four and a half years ago, and that's one example of a recommendation that the Government could have moved on.
CONNELL: Okay, but engaging more with the diaspora doesn't really sound like a make or break for a big deal like this.
KING: Well, no, I totally disagree with you, Tom. India – and again, Varghese pointed this out, and the same goes for Indonesia, as well – is that trade relations are a really long-term game, you can't turn up at the start of one year and hope to have a trade agreement by the end of that same year. I mean, it's kind of a ridiculous statement, you really have to invest, and investing in the diaspora, which is the business and the people-to-people links that Australia has with India, is really vital.
CONNELL: A report into the diaspora was, was published yesterday.
KING: Yeah, it was, but there was also one published four and a half years ago, which was part of the Varghese report. So they're just repeating stuff they've already done with no final result. And look to be fair, I really hope we do get to a good result. I really do because it's a country of 1.4 billion people, and we want to have good trading relationships with India.
CONNELL: So where does Labor's potential support, of course, you need to say to details, but do you have any sort of red flags around this trade deal? As I said, often it's to do with employment that Labor does argue over free trade deals, what can you say philosophically about Labor’s support?
KING: Well, you're right, like every trade agreement we have to look at the detail. But there is always, you are right, contentious issues around the free movement of people or that movement without any constraint at all. And that's not just Labor's concern, that's of concern to the general population. And we have to respect that concern. We have a system in this country of labour market testing to ensure that Australians have the opportunity to take up the jobs that are available, and that's the system that we should honour and actually implement probably a bit better than we do. So that that is a concern. Yeah, absolutely.
CONNELL: Okay. Well we’ll wait to see that detail. Let me ask you just finally and briefly, what do you make of India refusing to condemn Russia, but more importantly, seemingly willing to ramp up economic cooperation with Russia?
KING: Well, we respect national sovereignty, we respect India has to make its own decisions. I note Prime Minister Modi in the statement last night with the Prime Minister Morrison did say what is happening in Ukraine and Russia is entirely regrettable and should be avoided.
CONNELL: Talk is cheap on this.
KING: Well, I don't know about that. Diplomacy is a lot about talk, actually, Tom, and it's about measured talk. And it's also…
KING: Hold on a second. I think we also have to be careful not to engage in wild criticism of our friends and neighbours in the region without seeking to understand the pressures they may be under. And the Defence Minister pointed this recently, I think yesterday. India is under pressure also from its relations with China. So it does have another relationship with Russia that we don't have, so they have a difficult path to tread, no doubt about it. And we hope all nations come out and condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
CONNELL: Madeleine King we're going to leave it there. Thanks for your time.
KING: Thank you. Thanks Tom. All the best.