David Speers: Andrew Robb, the Trade Minister. He’s in Singapore, where the Prime Minister is as well and he sat down with Laura Jayes today for a look at a bunch of things including the China Free Trade Agreement; we’ve seen concerns here in Australia from some unions, in particular electrical workers, Chinese electricians will now be able to come in without having to undergo the sort of skills tests they have previously and also concerns in the National Party about the Trans-Pacific Partnership – the regional pact that the U.S. is pushing as well. Let’s take a look.

Andrew Robb: We are trying to take the level of our relationship, not just in trade but defence, people-to-people movements, all sorts of areas to a more seamless level; standards that are similar if not the same, but are very similar. We are trying to create again a relationship with Singapore which is similar to that which we have with New Zealand.

Laura Jayes: Singapore and Australia are of course working towards the Trans-Pacific Partnership as well. Are you confident a deal can be done in July?

Andrew Robb: I think we are really one set of negotiations amongst all of the Ministers away from a conclusion. It may not happen, we might go two rounds but we are very close and a lot of the last few months have really been a waiting game while the United States gave the president the authority to accept or reject whatever we end up with after the next concluding round of negotiations.

Laura Jayes: One of the sticking points I understand in the TPP is the intellectual property when it comes to pharmaceuticals. Is this going to be a problem for Australia, given the government has just made moves to reduce the patent times so that generic medicines can become more freely available?
Andrew Robb: No. The sticking point or the differences relate not to the generic drugs, it gets quite complicated, but with the single molecule generic drugs and chemical drugs there is no issue there really. The issue is with the biologics; the new stream of drugs that do not derive from a chemical construct but from a biological background. Now that is the area of dispute and we are still working through that but I’ve got no intention of conceding any change which would impact on our PBS system. 

Laura Jayes: The Nationals are demanding a better deal when it comes to sugar cane in particular. Can you guarantee them that?

Andrew Robb: I don’t blame them. In the U.S. Free Trade Agreement we didn’t succeed in getting one extra tonne. Sugar is always difficult in a lot of these countries and I haven’t resolved that yet.  But I can tell you it’s the one I’ve made the most noise about and I still am, but it’s on the table for resolution in this last round.

Laura Jayes: But you can’t guarantee anything?

Andrew Robb: Well, all I can say to them is that I am doing my darndest to get a good outcome. I know the industry well, I’ve known it for 35 years and I’ve been in there throwing my weight around as best I can, so until the end I will fight for a great outcome for the sugar industry.

Laura Jayes: As you say this is always a negotiation, so what will Australia have to concede? Biosecurity, food standards, labour standards even?

Andrew Robb: The thing is that people always see these agreements as a zero-sum game; if we get an advantage here, someone else must lose and that’s not the point.  It’s like with the intellectual property – we are working within the current legislative framework that we’ve got in Australia but we could make changes which don’t alter in any way the protection that Australian IP has got, but which make it more seamless with other countries.

You can harmonise rules, so you are changing rules but you are not changing the level of protection. Now people find that hard to come to grips with, but it can be that you are providing the same measure of safety in different countries through different routes, but to harmonise the rules so that there is not the complications when you start to trade, and you’ve got different labelling and all these other requirements. So it is possible and in this agreement, so much of the benefit will come from having more seamless rules, one set of rules.

We have provided to China what we provide to literally dozens and dozens of other countries and in the process we have not changed one wit the level of experience and expertise required to get a 457 visa.       

Laura Jayes: And how is the India Free-Trade Agreement going? Can you make it four from four? Will you meet the deadline of December?

Andrew Robb: Well at this stage we are pretty much I think at the midpoint. There is a super amount of work to be done yet but I do feel that there is no reason that I can see why we couldn’t complete an agreement this year.

Laura Jayes: But India want greater labour movement, can you give them that?

Andrew Robb: We’ve got to get into the negotiation and see how much they want and what they want. A lot of what India wants is freer movement for their professionals. We’ve got a lot of Indian IT companies for instance, so the capacity to move people backwards and forwards and the issue with spouses and whether they can work or not. All of these sorts of issues are important but they are at the very professional end of the labour market and I think in some cases we’ve got to have a good look at what we can do.

It’s the same issue with us into Singapore, we’ve got a lot of professionals here and of course we are always looking for longer time frames for visas and conditions for spouses. So, it is not an unusual request and it is something that is worthy of consideration and it is an important part of their concerns.

David Speers: Trade Minister, Andrew Robb. 

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