Australia will not bring a complaint to the World Trade Organisation about the Trump administration’s controversial steel and aluminium tariffs, Malcolm Turnbull has said.
On Sunday the trade minister, Steve Ciobo, said the Australian government would “look at” supporting the European Union in the event it lodged a dispute in the WTO about the US tariffs of 25% on steel and 10% on aluminium imports.
But on Monday Turnbull told reporters that Australia, despite its free trade stance in a range of international forums and avowed opposition to protectionism, would not “bring up that complaint” because the government had secured an exemption from the proposed tariffs.
Coalition denies Trump gave Australia tariff exemption in exchange for military support
“There was speculation in the media about actions taken with other countries to do with this US steel and aluminium tariffs,” Turnbull told reporters in Port Kembla.
“As a country that is exempt from US tariffs, we cannot bring up that complaint. I just want be clear about that.”
It was always unlikely that Australia would spearhead a WTO complaint about the Trump policy given the exemption, but Australia routinely joins complaints to the WTO as a third party observer when it has commercial or legal interests connected to the dispute.
Turnbull’s remarks on Monday morning leave that prospect open, although Ciobo in a separate interview on Sky News said Australia would not participate in any way. The trade minister said the government would not be “part of an action when we are not incurring an injury”.
Turnbull visited the BlueScope plant south of Sydney on Monday to reinforce the weekend news that Australia had been given an exemption from the controversial new tariff regime Trump has imposed, alleging there is an import threat to US national security.
Trump unveiled the reprieve on Twitter, referring to a new security agreement in exchange for the Australian exemption.
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
Spoke to PM @TurnbullMalcolm of Australia. He is committed to having a very fair and reciprocal military and trade relationship. Working very quickly on a security agreement so we don’t have to impose steel or aluminum tariffs on our ally, the great nation of Australia!
March 9, 2018
The Turnbull government is adamant there is no new security agreement with the US, and that Trump’s language over the weekend merely reflects the legal underpinning for the executive order the president has issued.
On Monday, Turnbull told reporters he could provide an absolute assurance that there was no security quid-pro-quo in exchange for the exemption, because “I had the conversation with him, so I know is what was discussed, and there is no request for any change or addition to our security arrangements”.
“The reference in [Trump’s] tweet is just about the proclamation that has to be done in accordance with the executive order.”
Labor’s trade spokesman, Jason Clare, said he was inclined to accept Turnbull’s explanation. “I take them at their word,” he told Sky News.
“If it means something else, we’ll find out and the government needs to explain that, but I take the government and the prime minister at their word.”