Minister Simon Birmingham, Senator for South Australia was appointed as Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment in August 2018 and is the Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate.

A proud South Australian, Minister Birmingham worked for a number of industry bodies, establishing particular experience in the wine, tourism and hospitality sectors as well as working in a range of State and Federal political roles.

Red Meat Matters sat down with Minister Birmingham last month in what has been a very busy few months in the portfolio.

The CPTPP has just been ratified – congratulations! What are the key gains for the Australian red meat industry and agriculture at large with 98% per cent of tariffs eliminated in the free-trade area?

The CPTPP will provide significant windfalls across the agriculture industry. Australia exported around $12 billion worth of agricultural goods to CPTPP countries in 2017 – almost 23 per cent of Australia’s total exports of these products. It’s expected this agreement will provide preferential access for more than $5.5 billion of Australia’s agricultural exports liable to customs or duties to CPTPP countries.

For the red meat industry, the CPTPP market access outcomes include a reduction of Japan’s beef tariffs to 9 per cent within 15 years, the elimination of Japanese tariffs on processed meat products within 15 years, the elimination of Canadian beef tariffs (currently 26.5 per cent) within five years and the elimination of all Mexican tariffs on beef carcasses and cuts (currently up to 25 per cent) within 10 years.

Having moved quickly to be one of the first six countries to ratify the CPTPP, Australia stands to benefit from two early tariff cuts providing immediate economic benefits to exporters. This is significant for those with an eye to the Japanese market, who will see a tariff cut on 30 December when the CPTPP enters into force, followed by another cut on 1 April 2019, resulting in a 2.2% tariff rate lower than our current preferential treatment under the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement.
For sheepmeat producers, tariffs on exports to Mexico will be eliminated within 8 years and tariffs on sheepmeat exports to all other CPTPP countries will be eliminated from entry into force on 30 December of this year.

CPTPP members have not excluded adding new members to join in the future to “amplify its benefits.” Who are some of the other countries that we might see join?
We’re currently working with our CPTPP partners to set the parameters for new economies who might be interested in getting on-board. A number of countries have shown interest in joining, from Thailand and Korea through to the UK, once it leaves the EU. I would welcome the interest of any country who came to the table embracing the ambition and comprehensive nature of the CPTPP.

With the CPTPP now ratified, what’s the next frontier for trade reform for Australian agrifood?
It’s no secret that in the past year rising trade tensions have posed significant risks to the global economy, and potentially Australian businesses. There is no doubt our best form of defence against these global trade headwinds is to open up new market access opportunities for our farmers and that’s why our trade agenda is focused on locking-in, and expanding, our access to international markets.

For example in August, we concluded negotiations on the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, moving us closer to being the first country to sign a free trade agreement (FTA) with Indonesia in a decade. Our Peru FTA is also currently before Parliament, we have also concluded negotiations for an FTA with Hong Kong and we’ve also started negotiations with the European Union.

But FTA’s only make up one small part of Australia’s trade reform environment. Non-tariff barriers are a growing issue for many Australian exporters – and can cost up to three times the amount of formal trade barriers like tariffs. Non-tariff barriers can be any kind of government regulation, other than a customs duty, that unreasonably and unjustifiably restricts trade. To tackle this issue, we’re working closely with Australian businesses to understand the barriers they’re facing, evaluating options and discussing the benefits and risks of taking action.

China will remain an absolute powerhouse for beef imports and consumption, what measures are in place to ensure that Australia will remain a significant exporter of beef and veal to China?
China is an extremely important market for Australian meat exporters. Meat exports to China have grown rapidly over the last few years – from $1.04 billion in 2016-17 to $1.57 billion in 2017-18. In 2018-19 Australian saleyard prices are forecast to increase by around 6 per cent to average 625 cents per kilogram for lamb and 440 cents per kilogram of sheep. These price increases are understood to have come from growing Chinese demand for top quality red meat.

Being such a large market there are some challenges from time-to-time. The Liberal-National Government is working closely with industry and Chinese authorities to deal with issues when they come up and as quickly as possible. A significant Chinese Government restructure announced in March 2018, has slowed some progress on Australia’s market access objectives for much of the year. Our officials are working hard to ensure China’s import requirements are met for all the commodities that we export. Australia respects the Chinese Government’s strong commitment to improving food safety for Chinese consumers, and will continue to highlight to Chinese authorities the strong regulatory controls that underpin the integrity and safety of Australian meat exports.

Technical barriers to trade will always be challenging for our industry, costing Aussie red meat businesses around $3.4 billion in lost opportunity. What is the Coalition’s plan for addressing this and how can industry assist?
I understand how tough things can be for Australian exporters who have to contend with the measures foreign governments apply to regulate trade. Sometimes these barriers are necessary rules to protect health and wellbeing. But sometimes, the restrictions foreign governments impose are not reasonable or justified.

When exporters face unjustified trade restrictions, it’s important that the Government stands up for Australian businesses. As part of our FTAs, we’ve negotiated to address specific trade concerns as they arise, including in relation to technical barriers to trade. But often the problematic barriers fall outside traditional tariffs and FTA’s. That’s why the Liberal-National Government has put $6.6 million on the table in the Budget to tackle non-tariff barriers.

Since that announcement, we’ve been out there talking with industry to collect ideas for new ways to address non-tariff barriers, and to come up with a plan we can deliver together. We’re aiming for a unified effort across government and industry, cooperating to support Australian exporters and expanding their access to new markets. We’re looking forward to working with RMAC as we finalise and roll out this plan shortly.

I hope we will have more stories of overcoming Non-Tariff Measures like we did with negotiating shelf-life extensions for meat to the Middle East in 2017 and allowing more cost effective packaging methods when exporting red meat to Mexico.

(Editor’s Note: we have since welcomed the joint-Cabinet announcement into their action plan to TBTs)

Your portfolio is more than just goods and services – as trade, tourism and investment it’s about packaging the Australian lifestyle. What’s next for Brand Australia and what can the Australian red meat and food industry expect moving forward?

Australia has a strong, positive international image. Our quality produce, food and wine, and natural tourism assets are highly rated.

Something that often surprises those not familiar with Australia, however, is our track record in science and innovation. We are an ideas nation and our agricultural sector is an excellent case in point. We have long used technology and science to remain globally competitive within the industry and that expertise in foundational agricultural research is making us a serious world leader in agtech innovation.

It’s also important that the world’s investors, buyers, clients and customers see a consistent message with our international engagement. That is why the Liberal-National Government has recruited some of the nation’s best and brightest to develop a new Nation Brand. It’s all about promoting our industries in the most co-ordinated and visible light in this highly competitive global marketplace.

How do you see the Red Meat Advisory Council’s role in facilitating and advocating for both trade and investment for businesses across the Australian red meat and livestock supply chain?
RMAC has an important role to play in identifying and building opportunities for Australian meat exporters and in attracting investment into Australia. The meat and livestock industry through bodies such as RMAC and MLA already work closely with Austrade to help Australian agricultural exporters expand into new markets.

What is your favourite red meat dish? (With what South Australian wine, of course?)
By brother-in-law is a pig producer, so I’d be in trouble if I didn’t give a plug to the other meat category first! But it’s hard to beat barbecued lamb cutlets on a sunny day, accompanied by a zesty Riesling from the Clare Valley or a succulent beef fillet coupled with a classic Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon.