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Australia's special trade representative compares opportunities for trade in South Africa with those in South-East Asia

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Australia's special trade representative, John Button, says our trade relationship with Malaysia has been damaged by the Prime Minister's dubbing of his Malaysian counterpart as recalcitrant. The former Industry Minister says the forthcoming visits of two Australian Ministers to Malaysia will be critical in repairing the rift.

Tomorrow, he leads a 12-member delegation of business leaders and trade officials to South Africa. Kevin Wilde asked John Button about the opportunities for trade in South Africa compared with those in South-East Asia.

JOHN BUTTON: Frankly, without having been there, it's difficult for me to say, but I would not rank them as high as the opportunities for Australian companies in various Asian countries. But let me say this. I think the opportunities are probably discrete ones. I mean, there will be a big building program in South Africa after the election, housing programs, so there are probably opportunities for building equipment suppliers. There may be opportunities for some work in telecommunications, certainly some work in mining engineering and particularly mining software, and perhaps some opportunities in food processing.

Now, the delegation is composed so that it represents a number of industries which we believe might have relevance to South Africa, but it's a narrow range, I suppose, compared with what we look at in Asian countries.

KEVIN WILDE: You've just returned from a visit to Japan. What are your impressions of the strength of the Japanese economy and business confidence there in light of the share market crisis of recent days?

JOHN BUTTON: Well, I think the share market crisis, of course, is serious, and there are some big structural problems in the Japanese economy. I think some of the banks have very real problems, those sort of things, but my own view is that Japan will work its way through those things, perhaps taking a little longer than people expected a year or so ago.

KEVIN WILDE: You remain confident that the Japanese economy will sort itself out in the future. Do you believe that that will be in the next twelve, eighteen months or will we have to wait longer to get the longer-term benefits which will flow on to us especially?

JOHN BUTTON: Well, I think we'll have to wait at least twelve months and probably longer . I think it will take a while to sort out but the important thing for us is that Japan remains a powerful economy with a large population; it's in our part of the world. We've had a good long-standing relationship with them and I think that will continue into the future.

KEVIN WILDE: Has Australia's trade relationship with Malaysia been damaged by the Prime Minister calling Dr Mahathir recalcitrant?

JOHN BUTTON: I think so, yes.

KEVIN WILDE: By how much?

JOHN BUTTON: Oh, I don't know. I can't estimate that. It just remains to be seen what happens in the next week or two, but it's a pity it happened.

KEVIN WILDE: Do you believe the Australian Government has mishandled the issue and that it was an unfortunate mistake that will prove costly in the end?

JOHN BUTTON: Well, I think that remains to be seen, but I wish it had not happened.

KEVIN WILDE: Our relationship with Malaysia has been sensitive for a number of years. How would you suggest the issue be broached at the moment?

JOHN BUTTON: Two Ministers are going to Malaysia in the next week or so. I think they'll really have to try and conciliate the relationship a bit. I think we'll have to see what happens from those visits.

KEVIN WILDE: Why is Malaysia different to other Asian countries in terms of our relationship with them? We seem to have a particularly difficult time with Malaysia and Indonesia .... in foreign policy areas. What's so particular about Malaysia?

JOHN BUTTON: Well, I think it's not only Australia that's had difficulty with Malaysia. Other countries have as well. I think they're pretty sensitive about criticism or perceived criticism, whether it be in newspapers or wherever, but I think that's much less so with Indonesia, now, where the relationship has been, I think, consolidated considerably, particularly since the Prime Minister's visits there.

KEVIN WILDE: Should the Prime Minister apologise for his comments?

JOHN BUTTON: Well, I don't know all the complexities of this issue and I don't know the answer to that question. It may be that the issue can be resolved satisfactorily in the next few days without that.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Australia's special trade representative, John Button, speaking there with Kevin Wilde.