Politics with Michelle Grattan: Don Farrell's high noon for European free trade deal, and hopes for lobster exports to China

Last weekend Australia had a big win when China agreed to review over the next five months its prohibitive tariffs on Australian wine, This weekend Trade Minister Don Farrell hopes to finally land a long-awaited free trade deal with the European Union, for which negotiations have been going on for years.

Farrell tells the Conversation’s podcast that if agreement can’t be reached, Australia will need to walk away because the Europeans will be entering election season.

At the end of the day, my job is to make a decision on the national interest. And if on balance, the things that are good about the European trade agreement outweigh the things that are bad – because there’s always bad things in agreements – then I feel I’ve got an obligation to the Australian people to say yes, we’ll sign this agreement.

If we haven’t got a deal, the Europeans move into their electoral cycle for elections next year. And I think we will have lost the opportunity for two, perhaps three years to come back and resolve this.

Next week Farrell will leave with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese for China. That country now has removed or, in the case of wine, is moving to remove all the trade restrictions it imposed on Australia – with the exception of those on lobsters and a handful of meat exporters.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. I think Australian [wine] producers should start thinking about getting their product back into China as quickly as they can after that date, at a zero tariff. The [Chinese] minister himself has confirmed to me just how much he likes Australian wine. The Chinese have got a very strong palate for Australian wine and I’m confident that once we get that tariff removed, we’ll get Australian wine back onto Chinese supermarkets and into restaurants.

We have found alternative markets for our lobster, but not at the price that the Chinese were buying, so it’s a significant issue. And there’s one or two abattoirs in Australia who during COVID volunteered to suspend their exports because they had COVID in their abattoirs. They have not yet been given permits to go back in. But again, that’s just a process issue and I think with a bit more push on our part, we’ll get both the lobster and the meat back in to China.

Read more: Politics with Michelle Grattan: Special Minister of State Don Farrell wants donation and spending caps for next election

In the podcast Farrell, who is also Special Minister of State, canvasses his progress on electoral donations and spending caps. Independents have expresed some reservations about the government’s intentions, exchanging views with him at a recent meeting.

I don’t agree with [the independents’] assessment of what the impact of caps will do to the election result. In fact, in many ways I think they themselves will be beneficiaries of such a system.

I’ll keep talking with them. I’ve given them an assurance that, as with the other political parties, I’ll talk with them. I hope they will see that caps are necessary to stop really wealthy Australians buying election results.

The reality is we’ve seen over the last two federal elections really, really rich Australians seeking to buy election results. And I don’t think that adds to democracy in this country. I think that takes away from democracy.