ABC Radio National Drive with Andy Park

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040.

Andy Park: Well, joining me now is Senator Tim Ayres, the Assistant Minister for Trade. Welcome to you.

Tim Ayres, Assistant Trade Minister and Assistant Manufacturing Minister: G'day Andy. Good to be on the show.

Andy Park: This new strategy for Southeast Asia says the region is a major opportunity for Australian business. The Prime Minister spoke today as if we were discovering this part of the world for the first time. Why haven't we done more to build connections in the countries closest to us?

Assistant Minister: Well, you're right to point to how important it is. It's important in goods and services, trade terms. It's important in terms of the way that we approach two-way investment, the opportunity for Australian firms investing in the fastest growing region in the world in human history. But this economic strategy is important because it's part of Australia being part of the region that we live in, shaping the region in a way that's in our interests, that's in the joint interests of us and the ASEAN countries. This report, authored by Nicholas Moore, and I do want to thank him for what is an extraordinary piece of work here, is going to guide the Government's approach. We've adopted early three initiatives, and we'll consider the rest of this report to shape the Government's approach to trade and investment in the region that we live in.

Andy Park: What are the countries that are of most importance in your mind? Where are the greatest opportunities?

Assistant Minister: Well, each of the ASEAN countries is at different stages of development, have a different shape of opportunities on the good and investment front. The scope of this report covers all of the ASEAN countries, except, of course, for Myanmar because of the crisis in Myanmar. I wouldn't want to single out any of these countries, Andy. They each have enormous opportunities for Australian business, for Australian workers and for Australian investors. This Government is determined to engage across Southeast Asia in a way that supports our commercial imperatives for Australian businesses, but also meets the national interest objectives that we share with the countries of the region.

Andy Park: This strategy talks about establishing what's called a sort of single door concierge service to facilitate inward foreign investment. This is not exactly a new idea. Singapore does something similar. How soon could this get up and running to get investment dollars flowing inward?

Assistant Minister: Well, it's not a new idea, but it's a good idea. And the question in front of the Government is making sure that this is implemented properly. We have, of course, determined to immediately implement outward bound investment deal terms - deal teams that will perform the same function in ASEAN countries to make sure that we're shaking loose the opportunities for Australian business and Australian investment, including the export opportunities. This is a comprehensive report that looks at ten priority sectors where the biggest growth is. It's determined to set out a program of work for the Government to do jointly with the private sector to meet this challenge and to make sure Australia is part of the structural shifts in terms of growth, in terms of investment in areas like food security, climate and energy, infrastructure. There are enormous opportunities here for Australian firms and for Australian workers, and we're determined to make sure that Australia is part of that growth.

Andy Park: This strategy, Minister, acknowledges, perhaps with some latency, the frustration felt by Southeast Asian leaders and businesses about Australia's visa system being an obstacle to commerce and travel. We know the current visa backlogs are already holding us back. What needs to change here? Are we considering visa free travel with some of the ASEAN partners, for example?

Assistant Minister: Well, I'll leave announcements about visas to the relevant Ministers. I just make this observation, Andy. We have done an enormous amount of work as a Government to clear the visa backlog, working through that with additional resources because it has been an obstacle to growth, it has been an obstacle in people-to-people terms, and it has been an obstacle for businesses in terms of particular investments. So, we are very focused on clearing the backlog in terms of future reform in these areas and how the Government considers the report's recommendations and findings in this area, I'll leave that to the relevant Ministers to announce. But Nicholas Moore has been unafraid to point out the tough issues and the report is a very effective blueprint. And there's a set of challenges there for the Government and for businesses in Australia to lift their level of literacy in Southeast Asian business opportunities, to lift their level of awareness and their level of engagement, and to deal with the challenges that the report set out.

Andy Park: Sure, but this does feel a little bit back to the future. I mean, I went to primary school in the 90’s when we were being taught Indonesian because of this kind of idea of being part of the region. I mean, do we need to recommit to teaching our children Asian languages in schools? Does it need to be more than just this front shop of trade? It needs to be a bit more cultural, a bit more interconnected.

Assistant Minister: Well, it has been pointed out to me that there are less young people in Australian schools learning Bahasa now than there were in 1996. You know, this is a whole of nation effort that is going to be required here. I don't want to single out initiatives in terms of our education system. They will be a matter for the Government to consider in response to the report. But you are right that there is an urgent set of priorities here. The situation in terms of language literacy is something that has been talked about now for a very long time. And I think you and I are about the same age, Andy. I might be a little bit older than you, maybe...

Andy Park: Well, [Indonesian greeting] is about all I can remember.

Assistant Minister: But it was the centre of government's thinking then. And what Anthony Albanese is making really clear in this trip to this forum is that it is at the centre of the Government's economic thinking today. And whether it's back to the future or not, we live, as the Prime Minister says, in the fastest growing region of the world in human history. It is replete with opportunities and challenges. It is where we live, and it is where the Government is going to be focused on in terms of the trade and investment opportunities for the future. And that means a whole of country effort across all of the areas that you've identified.

Andy Park: Is this effort because of the rise or the fall of the Chinese economy?

Assistant Minister: Well, there will be ebbs and flows in terms of Australian trade across the region and around the world. The key here is managing risk and forecasting where there is growth. And this report is about doing that work. Diversifying our trade markets, diversifying the products and services that Australia offers to the world, increasing the proportion of our foreign direct investment that is engaged into the region. Enormous opportunities for Australian investors in the region and making sure that Australian firms, when this region moves to a net zero economy and the enormous opportunities that there are in terms of clean energy investment. Australia is in the best position in the region, with our technological resources, with our industry capability, with our vast capacity in solar and wind. We are in the best position possible to advance our renewable energy superpower ambitions in our own region. This report sets that out.

Andy Park: Is that the position that Joe Biden would want us to have and that Xi Jinping would not want us to have?

Assistant Minister: Well, this is a position that's in Australia's national interest. That's the key. We are here in this report spelling out the opportunities for Australian firms and Australian workers, for Australian investors, but also making it plain, Andy, that this is in the national interest to be part of the economic story of the region in which we live. Where the populations are growing enormously, the demand for goods and services and energy and infrastructure is growing almost exponentially. This is the region in which we live. This government is determined to back in an economic strategy for Australia in the region. It's in our economic interests, and it's in the national interest as well.

Andy Park: We're out of time. Senator Tim Ayres is the Assistant Minister for Trade. Thank you and good afternoon to you.

Assistant Minister: Really good to talk to you.

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