FRAN KELLY: Minister, the final round of talks are due to conclude on Friday; will there be a deal?

ANDREW ROBB: It’s not certain at this stage. There’s a lot of tension running around the building here at the moment – some very frank discussions. As always, the last five per cent of any agreement are usually the most difficult issues and I think every country, just about, has still got something on the table that they’re not satisfied with yet, as is the case with us.

FRAN KELLY: With us, I think it’s coming down largely to sugar and medicines. If I can deal with sugar first; cane growers want greater access to the US market where they could get a very good price for their product.  Overnight the US sugar industry has reaffirmed it will not support any further opening up of their market to imports. So does it look like Australian cane growers will miss out again?

ANDREW ROBB: Well that’s certainly not our intention. And of course the industry groups from every country, including our own, make some often very ambitious claims. Those that are trying to defend their markets get fairly bullish about it, but this is the whole point of these agreements; if they were easy, it all would have happened long ago.

FRAN KELLY: Sure, but we’re at a crunch point as you say.  Back home here, Barnaby Joyce and some of the other National Party MPs say they won’t support the TPP unless it opens up significant export opportunities for the sugar industry. Can you send a message to the sugar industry now, that they will get something out of the TPP if we sign it?

ANDREW ROBB: Well I’m not going to sign it without something for the sugar industry.  It’s now just a matter of what I can secure, and I will do my level best. This is an agreement which is designed to provide increased access, designed to provide a common set of rules across 40 per cent of the world’s GDP, designed to further reduce the barriers to protection between all those countries.
It has got the potential to be a magnificent step forward, the biggest trade deal since the Uruguay Round nearly 20 years ago. So it is of great significance, but as I say if it was easy, in many cases it wouldn’t be worth getting; we’ve got to really push hard and that’s what’s happening.

FRAN KELLY: What about medicines, that’s another stumbling block for Australia. The US wants to expand its intellectual property rights over pharmaceuticals, if agreed that could see Australians paying more for drugs on the PBS. Should we be worried about this? It’s a patent issue I know.

ANDREW ROBB: It’s a patent issue and again it’s probably the other main issue. Of course there’s all sorts of smaller things, but I think they will be sorted, but this is another main one. I’ve yet to be convinced, and I’ve done a lot of work on this, that we need to go beyond the five years data protection – which I won’t get into the detail of – but that’s the essence of it; how long that they get protection.

FRAN KELLY: The US wants 12 years...

ANDREW ROBB: The thing is with the US, I can see where they’re coming from because they’ve got legislation in the US which stops most uses of clinical trials; the use of DNA and genetic material is prohibited in many cases in the United States, so it has created lots of problems with their patent system.  So for biologics they’ve got a real problem, because they get all sorts of litigation when they try and patent their material. That’s not the case in Australia, so we are fundamentally different, and it does create a totally different scenario when it comes to the data protection. So they’re coming at it from that angle; that doesn’t mean we have to fall into line and we’re not going to.

FRAN KELLY: Perhaps the biggest bone of contention here in Australia is the so-called Investor State Dispute Settlement clause – ISDS clause – which would allow foreign companies to sue host governments for loss of profit. Has Australia agreed to include this clause in the TPP?

ANDREW ROBB: No we haven’t, not as yet. We are considering whether we would consider a modified version. Like with all agreements, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and the ISDS – our consideration – we have been talking about it, but we have not yet decided or agreed to include it.  The thing is though, that there is somewhat of a scare campaign I think being mounted, unreasonably I would say.  People have a right to have a view, but we have had these sorts of agreements with 28 countries now for 30 years, and there’s only been one action – the tobacco action – against us. We’ve used it into those countries that haven’t got a strong legal system and it’s helped our companies get some confidence where they’ve invested in other countries.

But the tobacco case, with latter-day ISDS systems, would not succeed. And so we won’t move on ISDS unless we’re satisfied that there’s a carve out, an exemption, for public policy matters on health and the environment.

FRAN KELLY: I don’t know if it’s fair to call it a scare campaign. Really significant people, people like Reserve Bank board member Heather Ridout and other senior academics, who have been examining this say that the fears might be exaggerated as you’re indicating, but it’s not worth the risk and therefore we shouldn’t put it into this agreement.

ANDREW ROBB: Well the thing is we’re trying to encourage investment. This agreement is a 21st century agreement; it’s going into all sorts of areas that haven’t had rules before – the movement of data  across the world,  e-commerce, the actions of state-owned enterprises; how can they be required to work on a level playing field and not be subsidised against our private enterprise businesses. 

All of these things have emerged in the last 15 to 25 years, this agreement is going into all of these areas. And so if you’re going to go into countries where you don’t know or trust the legal system, where you might find judges who’ll never find in favour of a foreign company, then you need this added protection. Our investors need the protection of an alternate system of challenge, especially if their business is expropriated, or if they’re discriminated against; it’s only on those two grounds that this thing can be used in any event. So, there is a long and strong case for this.

FRAN KELLY: Andrew Robb if I can bring your mind back to another Free Trade Agreement, the one with China. Over the weekend the ALP resolved to try and safeguard Australian jobs when this FTA comes to the parliament. The former Trade Minister Craig Emerson, who was involved in this before you were, had a look at the text and he says it’s clear in some instances there won’t be any testing of the local job market before Chinese investors are allowed to bring in their own workers. Can this provision be strengthened to satisfy concerns about Australian jobs?

ANDREW ROBB: I don’t know what Craig’s looked at, or how he’s looked at it; he must understand, of all people, what we have got in place with China in this Free Trade Agreement basically represents the same provisions Labor introduced either under the Enterprise Migration Agreement or in other FTAs, where they said that there is no need for market testing in regards to business executives and senior managers…

FRAN KELLY: Minister, we’ve spoken to legal experts who’ve had a good look at this and they say that it is laxer and there is more latitude for work testing to sort of not occur.

ANDREW ROBB: Well what I’m saying to you Fran, is if it is in any way inadequate in that regard then that was true under Labor because…

FRAN KELLY: Well you moved the projects down from $2 billion I think to $150 million, that’s a big change…

ANDREW ROBB: Well that’s the level at which they can bring in labour quickly and effectively if there is a shortage here. Even then it operates under the existing 457 guidelines which are very stringent, and again it operates under the same provisions Labor introduced, sure for $2 billion projects, but it’s the same provisions.  And it still does require that the labour agreement will only take place if the Department is satisfied that Australians have been provided with the first opportunity for jobs, so nothing is different.  This is a misrepresentation I’ve got to say, and it’s been driven by a union that is trying to maintain a semblance of relevance and is trying to exercise a diversion in the face of an onslaught of corruption claims.

I’ve run a lobby group in the past and I know when you’ve got a problem, you create a diversion.  The CFMEU have got a huge problem; they’re facing endless corruption claims – the bullying, the affront to the rule of law by that union is unspeakable and they know that, and they’re out there with this campaign running ads, burning up member’s money on a total misrepresentation of what is in this agreement.  This agreement is a very strong one with China and I’ll work with Labor to demonstrate, in a bipartisan way, that these labour provisions are sound and will cover Australian workers. Why would we do otherwise?

FRAN KELLY: Andrew Robb we have to leave it there, thank you for joining us on Breakfast.

ANDREW ROBB: Thanks very much Fran.

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