ROBB: I’ve completed this morning a very constructive meeting with Minister Gao. We talked about the G20 and APEC of course as we have been cooperating extensively with China and the next two weeks or so is dominated by those two events. So we had some time on that, but of course we spent considerable time on the Free Trade Agreement..
We made substantial progress this morning, there are still a couple of issues that we need to further negotiate. I think there is no reason to believe that we can’t nail those before President Xi arrives and that’s certainly the intent, but of course, as with all agreements, nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed.
So it’s something we should take great heart from this morning, progress is being made, but we’ve got another week or so of further negotiations.
QUESTION: What are the sticking points?
ROBB: There are only two actually, but I’m not going to get into those, because I think it is quite unproductive to have a negotiation in public. So we will deal with that in confidence I think.
QUESTION: Don’t suppose you can give us an idea of the industry or something?
ROBB: No, no, we are not going to spend the next 10 days with, I understand your requirements and industries are interested, but the best purpose will be served if we conclude these negotiations not in the public eye because there’s a lot at stake, very big issues and we don’t want to inadvertently trip up those negotiations because of certain speculation or because of things said by people who aren’t aware of what really is going on within the context of this Free Trade Agreement.
QUESTION: Are you confident getting at least as good a deal as New Zealand got?
ROBB: Again, I say to you we made substantial progress. I’ve been saying since the first meeting that we had these responsibilities and that’s our objective and I haven’t wavered from that objective.
QUESTION: Is Australia open to more flexible arrangements on labour mobility to allow Chinese labour in for Chinese funded projects?
ROBB: With all our free trade agreements if you look at the United States, Korea and Japan, there have been issues around movement of natural persons, particularly things such as mutual recognition, easier recognition of skill sets and whatever, so again those issues have been under consideration but I don’t want to go into the details.
QUESTION: You mentioned those two things, whatever they are, the sticking points, is it possible that the rest of the agreement could go ahead in time for President Xi’s visit, or is it all or nothing kind of thing in terms of that timetable?
ROBB: Well, they are significant issues, and as I said before nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Our objective, I think both Minister Gao and myself, we do see a pathway to resolution to these things, but we haven’t got there yet.
QUESTION: Has the fact that we didn’t support the bank, the infrastructure bank, been an impediment to getting a free trade agreement?
ROBB: None whatsoever. From my sense, I think the Chinese have well understood the position, that is we are keen to see certain principles embodied in the governance structure of the bank. And there is ample opportunity for those things to be further considered and introduced, and if they are introduced into the governance structure we will sign, we will be there. We think the bank has a lot of merit, the Prime Minister has said this and we are keen to see not only ourselves in a position where we can join the bank but also Japan, Untied States and South Korea because with the right governance structure it will be a huge contribution to infrastructure needs throughout the region.
QUESTION: Minister, the Opposition Leader said today that is seems that Australia is going to be making painful concessions to China on the FTA, what is your response to that?
ROBB: Well you see this is the sort of uninformed comment that can make it difficult to get the mutual trust that is necessary to see these things through.
We have spent 12 months building trust, building relationships, understanding the difficulties and the requirements of both countries, the opportunities. Now to make those types of uninformed comments just makes my point I think. It is better for us, for the immediate future to hold these negotiations in private.
QUESTION: Do you think you can win public support in Australia for greater Chinese state -owned investment into Australia?
ROBB: Well there is significant State-Owned investment now, and there are procedures through the Foreign Investment Review Board which progressively and very significant numbers of potential investments that they are now processing, and it’s been to the great benefit to Australia back over the last 14 years, for goodness sake, it got us through the Global Financial Crisis and has been an enormous contributor to wealth in Australia.
I think Australians understand the value of investment , not only from China, but if you look also at the TPP negotiations, it is a 21st century agreement which also has a chapter on state owned enterprises. Because so many of these countries typically have a lot of state owned enterprises, and of course every country has state-owned enterprises including ourselves, but some of the counties have a significant number. They are all starting to emerge as significant nations – Vietnam, Malaysia, China and many others, so these are issues that we have to accommodate and make sure that it is working for them and its working for us.
QUESTION: On the movement of labour can you reassure Australians that might be concerned that cheaper Chinese labour will flow from China as a result of this FTA?
ROBB: That won’t happen. I can reassure Australians.
QUESTION: There is no move in the FTA to have unskilled Chinese labour working on Chinese projects?
ROBB: I am just saying, I am not getting into the detail on all this because I would be negotiating in public. But I am just answering the questions that there will be no prospect for lower wages coming in to skills that currently enjoy a certain level of…
QUESTION: So if you did that, if there was some movement it would be through something like the 457 visas?
ROBB: I’m not talking about that I said. I was asked about wages and I am just saying we have protocols in Australia for people who are employed in all sorts of areas as to wage levels that are there by law and Australian law would apply.
QUESTION: Would the movement of natural persons as they call it, be around skilled labour, is that what you are saying?
ROBB: There are a number of issues to do with the movement of natural persons, even things like working holiday visas are movement of natural persons, the 457 issue, so again I don’t want to become prescriptive because like I said before, I am not going to give ammunition to someone like Bill Shorten to scare monger and frighten people in a way that could be detrimental to reaching a very ambitious agreement on both China’s part and our part.
QUESTION: : Is it hand-in-hand? Do you see the issue hand-in-hand? If you’re going to have greater Chinese funding of infrastructure – some high speed rail or things to that effect, we also have to have a component of Chinese labour involved – skilled labour or whatever else? Do you see the two things as working hand-in-hand?
ANDREW ROBB: : No I don’t.
QUESTION: : Can we ask you about the…
ANDREW ROBB: : We’ve had tens of billions of dollars of investments – some of the biggest – I’ve just visited the Gorgon Gas Project. I visited Citic just in the last three weeks. Massive projects in Australia which were constructed by Australians; and sure, 457s are getting Australian wages. We’ve had 14 years of the most significant private infrastructure development in our history. And we’ve been able to do it without cut-price labour.
QUESTION: : Can I ask about the live cattle deal; which is sort of separate, isn’t it to the FTA; is that right? And what – I think Andrew Wilkie described as the government being part of a death-cult for supporting this.
ANDREW ROBB: : There’s a health protocol as I understand it, it is not part of the FTA. But it is health protocols which apply to fruit and vegetables and other agricultural products; and to live cattle and to processed meat – you name it. This is a health protocol which has been working through the system.
As I understand it, it is not completed; but it’s close; it’s close. And we have in the past – successfully transported cattle here; dairy cattle. We are helping Chinese get milk. And that’s what unfortunately some of our people in Australia don’t understand that if you’re going to perform a humanitarian miracle – and that’s what’s happened in this country – 500 million people have come out of poverty in the last fifteen years; and that is a humanitarian miracle. It’s never happened in the history of the world. And they’ve still got hundreds of millions to pull out of poverty. Now that means higher quality food; it means a capacity to feed themselves in many respects. Now all of these things like increasing the quality of our livestock is a significant contribution.
So you have to get below the cute lines and look at really what it’s doing for everyday people in China. It’s all right for Australians to sit there – some Australians – and enjoy a quality of life unparalleled in many cases around the world – and criticise actions that have been taken to improve the lot of others who aren’t as blessed as we are at the moment with our quality of life.
QUESTION: : Minister back on the bank – I know Australia is not going to be a recipient of the funding; is there a risk that Australia is losing out on potential investment returned by not signing up to this?
ANDREW ROBB: : Well at the moment it’s just a memorandum to form the bank. It could be two years before they get to a point of a negotiated treaty. There’s a lot of time left; and you know; I think there’s endless opportunities between now and then for the negotiations and discussions between ourselves and those that are putting the bank together in China; and the other formation members – there’s 28 countries as I understand it – to settle on a set of government standards which are seen to be world-class. And if that happens, we’ll be there. We’ll be in the bank and we’ll be making our contribution.
QUESTION: : What do you think of the suggestion that the Chinese are using this as an arm of their foreign policy essentially by having a 50 per cent shareholding; what do you say to concerns like that?
ANDREW ROBB: : Look – I don’t see that. There a $750 billion infrastructure shortage - $750 billion deficit throughout the region. And it’s not only in China’s interests, but in our interest. If $750 billion worth of infrastructure occurred in all of those countries in the region around us; the advantages for Australia are enormous; and as I said earlier, we will contribute as part of the bank, but we want to make sure that the governance standards are world-class. If they are, we’ll be there, we’ll make a contribution. We’ll be a donor, but we will benefit – mark my words. But also, it does mean – as I said earlier – there is a huge humanitarian challenge in our region to take people out of poverty and get them heading towards a quality of life that we enjoy. This potentially is one of those arms of public policy that can deliver on that and short circuit a lot of the progress that needs to be made.
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