Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Questions (9)

Brendan Howlin


9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his telephone call with the Australian Prime Minister, Mr. Scott Morrison. [24993/19]

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Oral answers (17 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I spoke with the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Scott Morrison, on 10 June by telephone to congratulate him on his recent re-election as Prime Minister. We discussed bilateral relations and the deepening ties between our two countries, particularly our people-to-people connections and our trading relationship.

We also discussed global economic trends. I updated the Prime Minister on the latest developments on Brexit, which is a cause for concern for the Australian Government and Australian firms in the United Kingdom.

We briefly discussed the proposed EU-Australia free trade agreement, which is at an early stage of negotiation. Both the Prime Minister and I are keen to see the negotiations continue to progress.

The Prime Minister commented positively about Ireland's endorsement of the UN Development Programme, and the work of the joint referendum commission on Bougainville's independence from Papua New Guinea, which is chaired by the former Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern.

Finally, I invited the Prime Minister, who is of Irish ancestry, to visit Ireland, and he extended a reciprocal invitation for me to visit Australia.

I read the Taoiseach's tweet after his conversation with the Australian Prime Minister in which he stated that he congratulated the Prime Minister that morning on his election and had a good call discussing Brexit, bilateral relations, Bougainville and the EU-Australia free trade agreement. I would like to get details on exactly what was discussed.

The Taoiseach stated that there was a reciprocal invitation. As a matter of interest, does the Taoiseach plan to visit Australia this year? In relation to the EU-Australia free trade agreement, the Taoiseach stated they both were well disposed to it. Did the Australian Prime Minister indicate the timeline he envisaged for its ratification there or any difficulties that might arise from the Australian side? Did they discuss the treatment of Irish emigrants in Australia, the changing pattern of emigration and the greater restriction now on migrants, particularly Irish migrants? Did the Taoiseach have a view on that and what view did he express?

Finally, just so that I can understand it, does the Irish Government have a view on the upcoming vote on the potential independence of Bougainville Island, which is currently part of Papua New Guinea? Did the Taoiseach express a view to the Australian Prime Minister?

The result of the recent Australian elections appear to have surprised everyone, including the winners.

Ireland and Australia have always had a very positive relationship and, hopefully, this will continue. Of course, we disagree on many substantive policy issues, with climate change now being the most significant. In the list Deputy Howlin read out earlier, I did not hear that mentioned. The dependence of the Australian economy on mining and the estimated cost of climate mitigation have unfortunately caused the National Party to use climate change as a wedge issue and it seems that the cost of the Australian Labour Party's proposals were one of the many reasons it lost. Did the Taoiseach take the opportunity to ask the new Prime Minister if he will use his new term in office to re-engage more actively with action on climate change? Australia, of all countries, should understand the importance of co-ordinated international action on the environment, given how important the actions on CFCs have been in limiting the damage to the ozone layer over Australia.

The Taoiseach mentioned the Australian Prime Minister's Irish ancestry. Of course, there are many Irish people living down under - some voluntarily. They are on the adventure of their lives. Some may come home; some may not. Others, of course, were forced down under in the course of the recession, when the economy went bust and when many people literally lost their shirt. There are many families across the country, my own included, who have family down under as a direct consequence of the gross mismanagement and crashing of the bus by previous Governments headed up, most notably, by Fianna Fáil.

Be that as it may, I want to take this opportunity to welcome the recent announcement by Government that there will be a Bill to pave the way for a referendum to extend presidential voting rights to Irish citizens living in the North of Ireland and the diaspora. This should not be a controversial issue. It is an opportunity to redefine how many people think about the Irish nation. It offers a chance to treat all citizens equally, regardless of where they reside. Critically, it affords to those people to whom I referred, in Australian and in other places, who were forced off this island and out of their own country some democratic engagement and ongoing claim to the democratic political system at home. I would welcome a commitment on the prospective date. What date has the Taoiseach in mind for the referendum? It is important we have clarity on that.

To follow on from the previous point, we are now reaching crisis point in terms of the lack of tradespeople in this country to help us resolve the housing crisis and to develop the ambitious retrofit programme we need to meet climate change targets. We have a desperate shortage of trained craftspeople, a very significant portion of whom are in Australia. Did the Taoiseach ask the Australian Prime Minister why all these young well-trained people are in Australia? Did the Taoiseach ask about what they are doing there that they are leaving our country and going to Australia? As Deputy McDonald stated, part of the reason is because people want a bit of an adventure. That is fine. I have no problem with that. Young people want a bit of an adventure, to travel the world, etc. However, many of them are economic refugees. In the case of many of them who might be considering coming back here, I suspect a considerable part of the answer as to why they are not coming back is that they cannot afford to live here. What are we doing wrong?

Young people coming out of apprenticeships or coming out of college are flocking to Australia when we need them here. Is there anything we can learn? Does the Taoiseach recognise it is a problem and that we need to do something immediately to get some of those young educated and skilled people back before it becomes a major problem in this country?

I am sure the Taoiseach was particularly thrilled at the election of a fellow conservative in Australia. Like Ireland, one of the big challenges that faces Australia is climate change. We are all aware from Irish people, including relatives, living in Australia of severe forest fires in the vicinity of many of the big cities. Much of the election, in the case of the National Party, centred on the issue of mining and climate change proposals to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. The Australian election was probably won on quite Trumpian grounds. The Taoiseach spoke earlier, in his long ramble, of the fact that he had published a climate change policy. When he was talking to the Australian Prime Minister, did he discuss climate change because the issue we have most in common in terms of threats to our way of life is the danger we face from climate change? I appreciate that the document the other day was full of laudable aims but there was not a great deal of delivery. The Taoiseach wheeled out one adapted bus for the Cabinet to take to Grangegorman. How desperate does the Taoiseach have to get for publicity?

Time is up. Maybe we could give two minutes to the Taoiseach.

In fairness, we really only needed one bus. There only were six or seven Ministers present. We hardly needed six or seven buses for six or seven Ministers.

They all would have fitted in an electric taxi.

There was plenty of space.

They could have got a minibus.

Why could they not have done it from Government Buildings?

They did not have to go anywhere.

They could have walked. That would have been the most carbon neutral measure.

We could have taken the Luas, which I, as the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, was privileged to be part of connecting, and of opening a year or two ago. The last time I went to Technological University Dublin, Grangegorman, I was happy to travel on the Luas that I was involved in connecting to the technological university that I had been involved in creating so it was-----

The Taoiseach started the development of the Luas - that is a new one.

-----very appropriate. Again, I wish to inform the House that at some point there had to be a first hybrid bus. There are three. Six will arrive in the next couple of weeks and they will be on the Lucan route. There are 600 on order so this is climate action happening.

On my telephone call with Prime Minster Morrison, it was a very short call of fewer than ten minutes. This question and answer session about this call is actually longer than the call itself. Only a limited number of topics could, therefore, be discussed in quite a short call. This is the second time we have spoken. We made arrangements to meet in New York in September at the UN. I do not have any plans to visit Australia this year. We did not discuss the treatment of Irish migrants in Australia. It is a matter that I have discussed with the Australian Ambassador.

On the issue of a referendum on voting rights, it is intended that that will take place in October or November. It requires a timeline. Everyone knows how referendums proceed, in that legislation has to be brought through the two Houses, a referendum commission has to be set up, and there are many points along the way where timelines have to be met. To meet timeline of October-November, Second Stage of the Bill will need to be taken in the House before the summer recess, which we intend to do. I hope there will be cross-party support for this.

Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned the skills shortage in construction, which he is right about. The shortage of labour and of people who have skills in construction is one of the things constraining us when it comes to building homes and new public infrastructure and retrofitting, for example. That, in itself, is driving up the cost of construction, which is also a problem.

We have many people in apprenticeships. I will need to double check but I think there are now more people in apprenticeships than ever before, which is a big turnaround in the last year or two. We are also issuing work permits and work visas so that people from outside the European Union who have those skills can come to Ireland.

On migration, the Deputy might be interested to know that we passed the tipping point a year or two ago. There are now more Irish citizens coming back to Ireland than there are Irish citizens leaving. It is always the case that people will go in both directions and it is a good thing people have the chance to live and study abroad. However, I think we passed that point last year, where for the first time in a decade there are more Irish citizens coming back to Ireland than leaving. That, in itself, says something because every country has its problems. One of the problems Australia has, for example, is the very high cost of housing, particularly in Sydney. The fact that there are more people coming back to Ireland than leaving says something good about our country in the round.

I was asked about our position on Bougainville. The Irish Government's position is to allow the people to have a vote in their referendum and to decide for themselves as to whether they want to be independent or to remain part of Papua New Guinea, PNG. The UN Development Programme, UNDP, is actively assisting the peace process there, including the work of the joint referendum commission. Prime Minister Morrison mentioned in our telephone call that former Taoiseach, Mr. Ahern, is the chairman of that commission. We are very pleased that he has taken up that role and, in my view, he is very qualified to do that. The commission has brokered agreement on the text to be put to the people of Bougainville and that vote will take place at the end of 2020. The Governments of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville appointed the former Taoiseach in late 2018 as independent chair of the joint referendum commission overseeing the peace process, given his experience in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland peace process, and electoral issues. We did not have a role in this appointment but we endorse the work being done by the referendum commission and the EU is a key player in this regard. We also assist the work of the United Nations Development Programme, which endorses the referendum process, as do we. We are considering whether we should provide some funding to the UNDP in Papua New Guinea. I imagine we will come to a favourable decision on that very soon.

I was asked about the EU-Australia free trade agreement, FTA. Ireland is fully supportive of an ambitious and balanced EU-Australia FTA. Negotiations are being led by the European Commission but are at a relatively early stage. Some progress has been made. We would also like to see the EU and Australia reach a comprehensive and balanced FTA at the earliest opportunity while realising that there will be discussions on sensitive issues ahead, particularly on agriculture and agrifood, although that is less of an issue than it was in the past, given the enormous demand in China for agrifood products from Australia. I am hopeful that both sides will engage constructively to arrive at an outcome that is mutually beneficial to all our citizens. A successful outcome will allow Irish and Australian exporters to take advantage of new business opportunities that an agreement will provide. In addition, an EU-Australia FTA will send out a positive message in the context of current threats to global free trade and will provide an important boost for Irish and Australian business.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.