CHRIS UHLMANN: The catch cry of the Coalition when it came to power was ‘Australia is open for business’. Its success on the domestic front has been muted with falling business and consumer confidence in the wake of the Budget, but internationally, it’s been having more luck, signing off on a series of free trade agreements. Deals have been stuck with Japan and South Korea and now all eyes are on the last horse in the Asian trifecta – settling a deal with China. Hopes are high that it will be signed during the Chinese President’s trip to Australia for the G20 and the man who’s been laboring at the coal face in Beijing is Andrew Robb, the Trade Minister. Andrew Robb, how close do you believe that you are to settling a free trade agreement with China?
ANDREW ROBB: Nothing’s ever agreed until everything’s agreed, but we are, I think, within striking distance and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t reach a conclusion before the visit of President Xi.
CHRIS UHLMANN: What about what the Australia Industry Group is concerned about, that manufacturers will be exposed to a greater level of competition than they are now, and suffer even more than they are suffering now?
ANDREW ROBB: As in the past and with other agreements, wherever there might be concessions that we make to other countries, if there is an issue with the impact on industries there is usually transition arrangements etcetera. So, all of those sorts of factors have been taken into account, but I’d just say that one of the great strengths that’s emerging in Australia is high-end manufacturing and overwhelmingly, that high-end manufacturing currently doesn’t enjoy any assistance. So, it will continue not only to thrive but I do think identify enormous opportunities if we are to conclude this trade agreement. So, manufacturing across the board I think is going to do well out of this – very well – especially the high-end manufacturing.
CHRIS UHLMANN: What about the free movement of labour, or perhaps the freer movement of labour, something the Chinese would want, but something you would imagine that the unions would resist quite staunchly?
ANDREW ROBB: Well again, I don’t think there’s been an agreement struck by either side of politics in the last 20 years of this nature – a free trade agreement – where there hasn’t been consideration given to the ability of countries to certainly move senior management and skilled people who are necessary to particular investments in for temporary periods and there’ll be nothing done really in what we are looking at which is at variance with normal practice in these sorts of agreements.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Are you concerned at all that you won’t get the same sort of deal that New Zealand got? It got a drop in its tariffs, particularly on agricultural products, very quickly. You’re looking for something similar, aren’t you?
ANDREW ROBB: We have said from the outset that our objective on the agricultural front is to at least get a New Zealand equivalent. Now, that’s been a very difficult issue for us for 12 months now, but we’ll have to wait and see how we’ve gone, but I’m very confident again that agriculture and resources and energy are going to do very well out of this agreement if we can pull it off. But perhaps, more importantly, given what’s happening here in China – the massive move towards a service based economy where the jobs are in most developed economies – the opportunities in this agreement are going to be extensive across so many service areas and it really is one of the landmark features of this agreement and one of the reasons why we must settle it this week if we can, because there is so much opportunity sitting there for Australian service industries, manufacturers, resources and energy and agriculture, education – you name it.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Do you think that Australians will feel comfortable with Chinese state-owned corporations being able to invest directly in Australia at levels that are much greater than they are now?
ANDREW ROBB: Well, in the last 10 to 15 years we have seen enormous investment, especially in the resources sector, from China and from state-owned enterprises and I think the breadth of interest is growing because a lot of the resources investment has now taken place, probably still a lot left in the energy space, but it’s been managed very effectively over the last 15 years and I see no reason why it won’t continue to be entering Australia in a most acceptable manner.
CHRIS UHLMANN: We saw some press last week that Australia was on the cusp of securing a breakthrough live cattle deal. Now, this is separate to the free trade agreement. Is that about to be signed as well?
ANDREW ROBB: It’s actually a health protocol rather than a formal agreement. It’s a health protocol which will enable increased numbers and different types of livestock to be exported to China and I think it’s got a little way to go yet, to be honest from what I hear, but all of these things, they feed off one another. The level of contact; I’ve been here seven times in the last year. I’ve met my counterparts elsewhere around the world several other times. We’ve had officials here and the linkages and the relationships that have been formed over this last 12 months are really extensive and they do influence how other things like the health protocol are addressed and how quickly they’re addressed. So, I do think our relationship, if we do conclude this free trade agreement, will go to another level altogether and it will be of enormous benefit to Australia and I think we will provide a lot of benefit too into China with our service capability and other things.
CHRIS UHLMANN: So, is it your expectation that this agreement will be in shape to sign by the time President Xi Jinping arrives for the G20?
Trade Minister: I see no reason why it won’t be. There is very strong intentions on both sides I think to make that deadline, but a deal’s never done until it’s done. I’ve learnt that in business and in politics, so anything could happen, but I can see no reason why it won’t be.
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