Steve Chase: Mr Robb you represent a seat in Melbourne, and Melbourne as we all know is football mad, this is tragic news about Phil Walsh isn’t it?

Andrew Robb: It’s a shocking incident; it’s a tragic situation which no doubt will rock the football world.  He’s been a highly respected figure and it really is a great loss and clearly a tragedy for the Walsh family.

Steve Chase: Yes it’s something that doesn’t happen very often fortunately, and we’ll be talking about it for a while; whether or not that game against Geelong goes ahead this weekend we don’t know, but let’s go to your portfolio.  We’ve got figures out yesterday showing that the deficit for Australia, the trade deficit, has narrowed in May but it seems Minister there are some widening concerns about the fine details of some of the trade deals you’re entering into with China and the United States.  We had Penny Wong, your shadow, yesterday tell us that you are failing to fully explain the impact of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.  What’s your response to that?

Andrew Robb: I don’t accept that, and now that the detail is fully out and Penny has also had the opportunity to privately view the detail some weeks ago, we are facing basically a xenophobic scare campaign from the union movement – or elements of the union movement – and I do feel that the CFMEU and others are running a line that we haven’t explained certain elements about skills and requirements for potentially Chinese coming into the country.  It’s just nonsense.  We have on many, many occasions spelt it out as clearly as possible; they just don’t accept it.  They just keep repeating this mantra that we’ve failed to deal with it.

Steve Chase: Yes specifically they’re talking about the deal may not maintain safety standards in workplaces.  You’re saying that’s nonsense?

Andrew Robb: It is nonsense.  I have said consistently, we’ve written it, we’ve sent it out – the Free Trade Agreement with China does not in any way alter the skills and the requirements that need to be met by a skilled worker applying for a temporary skilled visa. The applicants will be required to demonstrate to the Immigration Department that they possess all of the skills that are necessary: the English skills, the trade skills, all of the things.  All we did with China was bring them in line with literally dozens and dozens of other countries around the world; they now will have the same requirements as so many other trading partners.

Steve Chase: Can we move on to the trade deal you’re negotiating with the Americans.  Heather Ridout, you would have noticed this morning – the Reserve Bank board member and the former industry leader – has raised in the Financial Review this morning, concerns about the scheme’s investment provisions.  Are those concerns valid?

Andrew Robb: I scratch my head on this one, especially with someone like Heather who I thought – to be honest – would be somewhat better informed.  The fact of the matter is that the so-called Investor State Dispute Settlement which is being discussed as part of the agreement, is something that Australia has entered into with 28 other countries for 30 years now.  We’ve had that provision in different treaties with 28 other countries and we’ve only ever had one case taken against us, which is the tobacco case.  And again we’ve made further modifications to this provision, so I don’t see why we’ve had such an uproar about a provision which has been around for decades and which in many ways, has been modified and cut back so that it protects the rights of government to legislate in certain areas.

Steve Chase: You’d be aware that some Queensland Nationals MPs are getting anxious about getting access to the US sugar market; have you got anything out of the Americans for them?

Andrew Robb: Sugar’s still on the table; it’s been a difficult one.  Of course when we struck an agreement with the United States in a bilateral Free Trade Agreement ten years ago, we didn’t get anything on sugar.  They’re playing hard ball again, but I can assure you it’s my priority at the moment and I’ll keep hanging in there and I’m hopeful of getting a decent result.

Steve Chase: Minister while we’ve got you on the line, we know that you’re a former federal director of the Liberal Party.  Your front bench colleague Christopher Pyne this morning is warning the same-sex marriage debate is in danger of becoming a distraction for your government; is he right?

Andrew Robb: I think he is right.  There’s a variety of views, they must be respected, but we haven’t even got a bill in front of us and if it does arise it will be dealt with in the usual way.  The bottom line is that we were elected to restore stability in the economy, and none of the millions of families out there who are concerned about their jobs and paying the bills will thank us for being pre-occupied for weeks and weeks with this issue. 

Steve Chase: And you’d want it out of the way wouldn’t you before the end of August; being a former federal campaign director too you wouldn’t want this hanging around into next year?

Andrew Robb: The thing is, if we take it up it could distract us for weeks and a couple of months with these things; days lost of debate.  Now we’ve got a raft of important business which goes very much to economic management and meeting the expectations of the community when they elected us, and national security issues – they’ll all be bumped.  It is important to a lot of people, but for most people it’s a twentieth-order issue, and we’ve got to look at the priorities for the community and this should not be allowed to distract us from the key priorities that we’ve got.

Steve Chase: Minister, we appreciate you giving us your time this morning.  Thank you.

Andrew Robb: It’s a pleasure.

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