Michael Brissenden: The on-again, off-again trade deal between 12 Pacific Rim countries, including Australia and the United States is inching closer to a resolution. If it goes ahead, the Trans-Pacific Partnership would cover 40 per cent of the world’s economy and set new rules for trade and investment. Trade Ministers are meeting in Hawaii this week to thrash out the final details of the agreement, but there are still some major hurdles to overcome. Australia’s Trade Minister Andrew Robb is there and he joins me now; Andrew Robb, good morning.

Andrew Robb: Good morning.

Michael Brissenden: Talks this week are really make or break for this deal, aren’t they? How hopeful are you of getting it through?

Andrew Robb: They are very important – partly or mainly because of the political cycle in the US and also an impending Canadian election. So if we don’t do it this week, it’s going to be very difficult I think to conclude it within a couple of years. But we are very close and I do feel that we’re into the last few issues. People do seem to have come with a mind to try and conclude it, and I’m quite hopeful that by the end of the week we will have achieved an outcome which is going to be really the best trade deal since the Uruguay Round 20 years ago.

Michael Brissenden: And what are those issues? There are still some tough sticking points on monopoly periods for new medicines etc. and preferential treatment for state-owned companies. Is that right?

Andrew Robb: That’s true; different countries have different issues really. For Australia, of course, the biologics – what protection period extends to biologics has been an issue from the outset and is still unresolved. Some market access issues are still in the discussion stage and sugar’s in that category, and some of dairy, again depending on the country there are different issues, but we are close. The state-owned enterprises is an issue for some countries, but they’re very important provisions to make sure that state-owned enterprises can operate, but in a way that they’re not unfairly providing subsidies etc. against private enterprises. So some really ground-breaking initiatives are on the table and if we can pull it off, it will be the most significant and broad ranging reduction in protection, and one set of rules for so many different areas covering 40 per cent of the world’s GDP.

Michael Brissenden: This has been criticised as a sort of a secret deal making. When will we see the details of this?

Andrew Robb: Well, when it’s concluded. The thing is nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed. So we’ve been through probably thousands of pages of different issues, which in large part have now been resolved. But only if some of the more difficult issues are also agreed. As I say, nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed. If I’m put in a position where they’re suggesting that Australia will be disadvantaged heavily by some of the last few issues, well that impacts on all the other decisions that we’ve already made temporarily until we see the final document.

So everyone will see it, as is the case with every other trade agreement; the fine detail will be provided at signing but the broad detail will be decided once we shake on it, hopefully at the end of this week. So, it’s no different to any other; it’s been a bit of a straw man this issue of confidentiality. We’ve had over one thousand consultations. There are a range of industry groups at these negotiations, who we talk with every day, as has been the case with every time I’ve been to any negotiation anywhere in the world – the industry groups are there. It’s quite a misnomer to suggest that we haven’t contacted or we don’t know what people want. We are being guided by all the different sectors in terms of how we approach all the different chapters in this trade agreement.

Michael Brissenden: Okay, but there have been some pretty strong criticism, haven’t there? I’ll just run a couple past you: one, that will entrench protection in some areas and where it does liberalise trade it will do so at the expense of non-members; and that it doesn’t include some key players like China, India and Indonesia?

Andrew Robb: Well, it doesn’t include the rest of the world; it’s a regional trade agreement. We – Australia – is also involved in a regional trade agreement with India, with China, with some of the other countries that are in this TPP. My objective and the objective of so many people is that ultimately these two big agreements – the TPP more to the east of Asia and the other regional agreement more to the west of Asia – will come together in time to create one Asia-wide, Asia-Pacific free trade area. So we could try and include 160 countries and that has been unsuccessful in the last 20 years – the WTO – so this is a stepwise process; bricks in the wall as I see it. You start to break down and get a common set of rules across significant areas of the world’s economy and then ultimately that can influence and come together with other regional groupings so that you ultimately head towards a multi-lateral agreement.

Michael Brissenden: Okay. Can I just quickly turn to the China FTA, which is also coming. There is concern that Australian jobs will be lost. That was raised again over the weekend at the ALP conference. Can you guarantee this will not undermine Australian working conditions in anyway?

Andrew Robb: This is going to increase Australian opportunities by the tens of thousands of jobs. This is the same line that the unions have run every time; they’re anti-trade. They don’t want to see a change, largely to their own union activities. They don’t want to see anyone else who may not be attracted to joining the CFMEU. This is their motivation and they have peddled a whole lot of misrepresentations. The fact of the matter is every item that they have raised of concern is identical or near so to all the provisions that are already within our labour market conditions and have been signed on by Labor, even in agreements such as Chile in the past. We have adopted provisions which mirror all of those. Now the unions are coming out, and now Labor’s sadly sort of being told to do the same by the union heavies, to query these things, even though all the detail’s there for them to see they won’t accept it.  This is a great deal for Australia and the unions need to pull their head in.

Michael Brissenden: Okay, Andrew Robb we’ll leave it there. Thanks very much for joining us.

Andrew Robb: Thank you very much.

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