David Speers: Now you haven’t given up on this deal (TPP), but what specifically though needs to happen for it to be finalised?

Andrew Robb: I think the big issues really rest as much with the United States as with any of the other 11 countries. On the issue of dairy, New Zealand really is a sort of by-product of the problem; it is the United States, Canada and Mexico – because of their previous NAFTA agreement – and Japan, because of its big consumer role – those four countries have not got to a solution between themselves, and I think the US is best placed to break it, because their dairy industry is now leading the world and they are in a position to create more market access.

But because of the reliance that Obama had on all of the politicians – in particular with that TPA legislation – it looks like to me that during those negotiations last week, the Americans had their hands tied a lot because of commitments that had already been given to a lot of the congressmen about particular industries. So the US has really got a big part to play. Unfortunately we made a lot of progress on 21st Century issues but 19th and 20th Century issues like sugar and dairy, we are still fighting those old wars.

David Speers: I want to ask you about sugar because it is a big issue for Australia. The US consumes around 10 million tonnes of sugar a year and they import about three million tonnes of that, but they only let us sell them 90,000 tonnes and I think they are offering 150,000, but clearly it should be higher than that. What is your goal here, what would you like Australians to be able to sell to the United States?

Andrew Robb: Well many times that obviously; I have been looking at all sorts of ways of how we can achieve this. Often with tariff reductions it doesn’t happen immediately, it happens over three years or five years or whatever; I am looking at those sorts of combinations. What we must have is not just a strong base amount but we must have significant access to growth, and a commitment and a guarantee on growth at a very significant level, because I think there will be considerable growth in that market in the years ahead.  So there are many ways to skin a cat but we need certainly over time, multiples of the 150 that is on the table at the moment. 

David Speers: So that base number, you are saying multiples of that 150; if it’s not 500,000 or whatever the figure you’ve got in mind, is it something that will stop the deal from being finalised? Is this a make or break issue?

Andrew Robb: Well it has been a red line issue; it is one of the things that stopped the talks. We are really down to about four or five out of literally, I’d say thousands of decisions that have been taken in a provisional sense; nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed. But there are sort of four or five big issues; you mentioned one of the other ones, the biologics.  Again I haven’t conceded any space on that because I just don’t see that is needed. I think all of these agreements are supposed to be reducing protection and to me to take the biologics from five years data protection to 12, all I can see is that we are increasing protection for part of the pharmaceutical sector. 

David Speers: Will you strike a middle ground there?

Andrew Robb: Well it is not a question of putting out an ambit claim and then finding something in the middle. It is a question of going back to first principles and looking at why the argument is being made. Now I can see from the American point of view; the trouble with them is their patent system – as far as it applies to biologics – is vulnerable because they are not allowed, as a result of a court decision, to include a lot of genetic material in patents. Now that is not true in Australia, and as a consequence, our patent system is providing the protection that the Americans are asking for.  So I don’t see why we should move, and until they show me why, and so far it has just been a question of ‘do this and jump’. Well, sorry.

David Speers: So where does this go now? APEC’s meeting in November, that is still some months away. Are you going to be meeting with your counterparts anytime soon?

Andrew Robb: Notwithstanding the way in which it did finish, with a fair bit of frustration and anger in the room, people were professional and accepted that there is still an opportunity; we are going to try bi-laterally to have a lot of involvement over the next few weeks, and hopefully meet within four to six weeks to see if we can reach a conclusion this time.

David Speers: Now let me ask you this, a few months ago President Obama said about this Trans-Pacific Partnership and I quote: ‘We have to make sure America writes the rules of the global economy and we should do it today while our economy is in a position of global strength. If we don’t write rules for trade around the world, guess what, China will and they will write rules in a way that gives Chinese workers and Chinese businesses the upper hand.’  So Andrew Robb, if Obama fails on this TPP, will that ultimately be a win for China?

Andrew Robb: Well some people are trying to paint it in that regard. I thought that statement was a bit unfortunate really, because the principle aim of these negotiations is to try and more seamlessly have a set of rules across a large number of countries – twelve in this case – who are trading significantly between one another. And we are trying to do exactly the same thing with the eastern part of Asia – and China is in that one and so are we and so is India – and ultimately bring the two together.  So it is not a  question of America writing the rules; they might think they are but that is why the talks have failed, because the other countries are standing their ground and this will be a deal that hopefully will be attractive to a lot of other countries – including China in due course – one way or another.

David Speers: Now let me turn to the Free Trade Agreement with China, already struck between Australia and China. As you know Labor and the unions are worried about the impact this has on jobs here. You may not have seen the latest ad that the Electrical Trades Union are running, I just want to play it quickly and then get your thoughts on it.

(plays ad)

David Speers: Andrew Robb it’s very emotive, it’s pretty scary; do these workers have anything to worry about?

Andrew Robb: They do not.  This is most disingenuous; this is just a series of unions, ETU in that case, the CFMEU; they are all running scared because daily we are hearing about the corruption, the bullying, the involvement with bikie gangs, the intimidation in workplaces – these are the sorts of things that are bringing down the reputation of unions, scaring-off membership. This is an attempt at a clear diversion to try and divert attention away from the problems that they’ve got because of their behaviour in the workplace.  This is most disingenuous, it is very unfortunate and all they’re doing is trying to threaten the prospect of so much growth, so many jobs for Australians.  Nothing in that agreement alters the protections that exist for Australian workers, it’s all under 457’s if anyone comes in from China – as they do from many other countries now today – it’s under 457s; equal pay rates, all the conditions of Australia, and that exists now under the China Free Trade Agreement.

David Speers: Let me just go to the section they’re worried about; article 10.4 says quote: ‘neither party shall require labour market testing, economics needs testing or other procedures of similar effect, as a condition for temporary entry of these workers’.  Now I know in other parts of the agreement it does refer to labour market testing but why is that wording there at all; it just seems confusing.

Andrew Robb:  Well one of these provisions which applies in every Free Trade Agreement – signed by Labor or ourselves – is where senior business executives are able to come in without the need for market testing.  That is an obvious provision; if you’ve got senior executives in the company that need to come in and help establish the project, then it’s not a question of workers, it’s a question of the management of the company being able to come and get full access.  If they’re putting in tens of billions of dollars, they should be able to have some of their management in there to conduct affairs.

David Speers: So that only applies to management, not to labour.

Andrew Robb: There’s only one provision; where they have got technical expertise which relates to the purchase of a major piece of equipment – a multi-million dollar piece of equipment – they can come in on a particular visa which is only short-term and it only applies to the fact that it’s a piece of equipment that requires expertise to either install it or maintain it in the short-term.  But it’s quite explicit in the agreement that those people cannot stay for long, they’re only in there to help put in place a major piece of machinery.

We have got now, not assembly type manufacturing, we are at the high-end of manufacturing and often you do find equipment and machinery which is multi-million dollar, highly technical and is quite specific to a company that designed it and has manufactured it.  So that is the only exception, and it’s a sensible one and it’s one that again, if there’s no one in Australia that has those skills and is not involved with the company, they could not meet that need in the short-term.

David Speers: Let me ask you another concern they’ve got; that yes those Chinese workers who are brought in as labour on big projects would be paid the minimum wage in Australia, but not the market standard that unions have negotiated for their workforce, so the Chinese workers could undercut what’s been agreed by the unionised workforce under an Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.

Andrew Robb: In so many cases the requirement for 457 payments is so far ahead of what could be paid by some companies.  It is designed, it is set at a rate so that it is a fair rate in those areas, and it is set invariably only to accommodate where there is a shortage in the short-term, and that’s the whole point of the market testing provisions that are in there.  The unions are looking to misrepresent clauses that relate to different parts of the agreement to make out it’s a clause that applies to all of the agreement, and they have very cleverly sought to worry people about their jobs.

This is going to involve – in the long-term – literally hundreds of thousands of jobs for Australia, and tens and tens of billions of dollars.  China’s our biggest trading partner.  This is a deal that’s going to open up the future for Australian business, it is something we should be celebrating, not something we should be playing just crass politics with.

David Speers: Let me ask you finally Andrew Robb about the Speaker; not so much Bronwyn Bishop but who should be the Speaker now; the front runners from people I’ve been talking to appear to be Tony Smith, Andrew Southcott, Philip Ruddock’s also in the mix; what are your thoughts?  Who would make a good Speaker?

Andrew Robb: All three of those would qualify; Smithy is a great friend of mine and would be a great signal of the next generation coming through.   But Andrew Southcott would do a good job, I think there will be people gravitating around a possible candidate, we may end up with a couple and a vote will be taken, but I think it will gravitate over the next few days and we’ve got plenty of talent to fill that position.

David Speers: So Victorians would get behind Tony Smith you reckon?

Andrew Robb: I’ve got no doubt about that.  He’d do a fine job, he’s a very good man with a lot of experience.

David Speers: Let me ask you this; there’s been a lot of criticism that Bronwyn Bishop was too partisan.  Do you think the Speaker should ban themselves from going to Party Room meetings?

Andrew Robb: That will ultimately be a decision for the Speaker.  That has been the practice of a number of Speakers in the past.  I’m personally supportive of that proposition, but I do think it should be something that the Speaker of the day – whoever that is – should make that decision.  They need to find whatever way they can, to demonstrate that they’re going to be independent in the way in which they run the House.

David Speers: On entitlements, you’re the Trade Minister, you do so much travel – you and the Foreign Minister – are you worried that what comes out of this whole review might mean a lot more red tape for you and your office in being able to do your job?

Andrew Robb: There are a lot of rules now, but obviously there are areas that are not in line with community expectation, so I don’t know if it will add so much to the welter of reporting that we do now, it just might change some of the provisions.  This government did stop first class travel, we all travel business class overseas etc.  It did stop family members working for politicians, and we did reduce the amount of opportunity for family members to participate in travel, so we’ve done a number of things but we haven’t obviously met the mark yet, and we’ll continue to try and find what is in line with community expectations and we’ll have to do whatever we have to do, from a red tape point of view, to accommodate that.

David Speers: Trade Minister Andrew Robb we’ll have to leave it there; thank you very much for talking to us this afternoon.

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