Rafael Epstein: Andrew Robb, good afternoon.

Andrew Robb: Good afternoon Raf.

Rafael Epstein: Is the TPP dead do you think?

Andrew Robb: No I don’t think it is; it’s taken a flesh wound over the weekend.

Rafael Epstein: A Black Knight flesh wound or just a flesh wound?

Andrew Robb: Just a flesh wound. Look I would say we have taken provisional decisions on over 90 per cent of the issues, which is literally thousands of decisions. But there were three or four major things which we weren’t able to reach agreement on and we will try again.

Rafael Epstein: Why can’t we all see it before it’s signed? It’s going to make people suspicious isn’t it?

Andrew Robb: Well, people will see this before it’s signed.

Rafael Epstein: But not once you’ve signed up to it, and once it goes into parliament you will be kind of saying this is make or break, no?

Andrew Robb: No. On this occasion, a lot of what they call the ‘legal scrubbing’ – because you have to put it into the same language of every, in this case 12 countries, so it is a lot of work – usually comes at the end of an agreement, and that is why people don’t see it until it is all nailed down. But a lot of that work has been done; we’ve been going five years and they have been doing it progressively, but the intent is, once we do conclude it, to try and get it out within – don’t hold me quite to the number of days – I think 90 days, so that then people can have a look at it before it is signed, and then invariably there will be a process in every country to formally approve it in their parliaments and to go through it etc.

Rafael Epstein: Isn’t there a lot of pressure – you tell me if I’m wrong – but there is a lot of pressure isn’t there? You all sign up to it, say that happens in the next six months or so, you come back to parliament and people say: hold on we don’t like this. The government’s response is going to be: listen it’s kind of take it or leave it, you’ve got to have the whole thing.

Andrew Robb: We have been involved with treaties right back to when Australia as a Federation was formed. Both sides of politics have been involved in signing treaties; these Free Trade Agreements are another treaty. We have endless ones with the UN on all sorts of issues. The procedure historically has been that the government that is voted in is given the responsibility for properly concluding treaties, and they confer with the community like we have been; we’ve had literally in excess of 1,300 consultations. There must have been 25 people – or nearly that – from Australia with me in Hawaii over the last week, all from different groups; some of them from health groups, some of them farmer groups – all sorts of groups – we were conferring with them every day.

This sort of notion that we are doing all this in some sort of secrecy, it really is an attempt by those who are basically opposed to any trade agreement, finding another way to object to it, and they have been pretty effective I’ve got to say this time.

Rafael Epstein: Look, I’d like to ask about the Free Trade Agreement with China in a moment, however a quick prognostication; I think there’s electoral processes speeding up in Canada, it is definitely happening in America, is there really any time or is the deal going to be sidelined by domestic politics?

Andrew Robb: There will come a point in time – Canada is due to be called anytime I think; the Canadian Trade Minister said to me they will still be there at the table if we get back in the next few weeks. That was the intent when we left and I think the US, they’ve got the first debates happening in a couple of weeks, so the politics there is starting to steam-up big time so you’re right, there will be a point in time…

Rafael Epstein: I can’t imagine Donald Trump dealing with the TPP in all its complexity.

Andrew Robb: I think we’ve got one more opportunity to be honest. So if we can get back together within four to six or seven weeks that might be it, but we will be pushing it after that.

Rafael Epstein: Just on the Free Trade Agreement with China, I know you have had a lot to say about the union campaign, but let me ask you to address one aspect of it. I know you say the rules haven’t changed but the ability to bring in people on 457 visas will be broader, there will be a lot more, a broader range of projects so I suppose the question is: if people already have concerns about the 457 process, if you are now opening the door much wider for 457s, why shouldn’t people be concerned?

Andrew Robb: But we are not; we are not opening it much wider. There is one extra area where people will come in under 457s…

Rafael Epstein: You’re lowering the value threshold aren’t you?

Andrew Robb: Just like the Enterprise Migration Agreement that Labor brought in, it only allows for a situation where clearly there are not Australian workers to do the job.

Rafael Epstein: Just to clarify, bringing in people on 457 visas is going to be available on a broader range of projects? On more projects?

Andrew Robb: It is on more projects but that doesn’t mean that there are any less Australian workers than there would be whether we had that threshold at $2 billion or under.

Rafael Epstein: No, well maybe not but people have a lot of concerns about that process. There are many people who feel it is not at all a process where you really need to rigorously test whether there are Australians who can do the job.

Andrew Robb: Well you go and talk to hundreds of businesses who are complaining bitterly all the time; about the cost of the whole thing, about the procedures they have to go through, how long it takes, what they’ve got to prove; there is a litany. You sit in my office where I am now and confront a lot of businesses that say they are trying to bring in people on the 457s and it is hardly worth the effort because it takes so long, and they have to prove so much and all the rest. I just don’t accept that.

Rafael Epstein: Are you concerned about the union campaign? It appears to be quite effective.

Andrew Robb: I am concerned about the impact it has on our relationship with China. This has been negotiated in good faith, it has been overwhelmingly acknowledged to be the best deal that China has ever done with anyone, they’re our biggest trading partner and it is really poking them in the eye. We have had a litany of people come out, serious people on both sides of politics; John Brumby, we had today the head of ANZ Bank, all sorts of people have been out saying this is a wonderful deal and you’ve got to go ahead with it etc etc.

The unions are just playing absolute politics with this. I ran a lobby group, the National Farmers Federation in the 80s, I know when you’ve got a problem what you do, you go and create a diversion. Well the unions, especially the CFMEU, are being so pilloried about the corruption within their ranks, the bullying, the thuggery, the association with the bikie groups who are controlling 15 per cent of the drug trade in Australia. All of this sort of thing is bad for their reputation and bad for their membership and they are mounting this campaign with their own members’ funds, at great expense, in order to create a diversion; that is all it is. They are misrepresenting the detail of this thing. People should not be worried, this will create tens of thousands of jobs, not cost jobs.

Rafael Epstein: Andrew Robb, I do want to ask you about who might be the next Speaker, but if I can ask you about the previous Speaker first. It’s not just another entitlements scandal is it? When Bronwyn Bishop looks like she is lying rather than pay back for the weddings, with confidential sources that just so happen to be in the same towns as the weddings she is travelling to. Would you concede that the way she has handled this has actually been toxic for politics?

Andrew Robb: Look, I am very reluctant to rake over the events. People have made up their own mind and so much so that Bronwyn, who is not the resigning type, has come to her own conclusion that it is in the interest of the country and the government…

Rafael Epstein: I am sure there was some encouragement.

Andrew Robb: I have been out of the country for the last week or so, but as I understand she did come and offer that and she made that decision, so I think people have had their say. Clearly the fact that we are now looking to have a root and branch examination, an independent assessment of the entitlements or the business costs remuneration suggests we are out of kilter still with community expectations, and we…

Rafael Epstein: That is just a cover for her bad behaviour though isn’t it? If you were serious about a review that would have happened very much at the beginning of your government when there was an expenses scandal.

Andrew Robb: We did do things. We stopped any first-class travel. I’ve done so many trips now; I’ve been out of the country 182 days last year and I will head that way again this year and its business class and that’s fine. I mean no one goes overseas on first class anymore. No family members can work for a sitting member.

Rafael Epstein: Look I understand those changes Andrew Robb.

Andrew Robb: But we haven’t obviously met the target…

Rafael Epstein: But it is her response, it’s her way of dealing with this; quibbling whether it’s $90,000 or $88,000. I hope there are some confidential sources that do turn up, but it’s the way she dealt with this that made it so toxic and I think there’s a lot of people who say well listen, the review is a way of getting around the government having to admit that someone who’s an important part of the government, stuffed it up and added to the poison that is dragging the body politic down.

Andrew Robb: Well, look I think the way in which she may have conducted it, who knows what contribution it made. Bronwyn was being Bronwyn in terms of, you know your strengths are your weaknesses and the way in which she has walked through many political problems and stood up has been a great strength for her and the government in a positive and very constructive way. But I am not going to start analysing Bronwyn’s behaviour because she has paid a very big price for what has happened and she has taken that decision, and I give her credit for taking it. We as a government have a lot of things on our plate and we’ve got to move-on on these things and get back on the main game.

Rafael Epstein: Quick guess, people are talking about Philip Ruddock, the former Attorney-General, Bruce Scott the senior National and now I’m even seeing Tony Smith, Peter Costello’s former staffer now a Liberal MP here in Melbourne as a likely Speaker. Who do you think will get the job?

Andrew Robb: I don’t know yet, it is still pretty early.

Rafael Epstein: Tony Smith’s a nice guy, a little young?

Andrew Robb: No he’s 48 you see…

Rafael Epstein: Baby face?

Andrew Robb: Well maybe he is blessed with a baby face, but he has been there 14 years and he is a good friend of mine and I have known him very well for a long long time, long before he came into the parliament for that matter. A man who I think is very capable of doing the job; it would announce the next generation in all sorts of ways which I think is a good thing for us, so if Smithy does put his hand up, I will be giving him all my support.

Rafael Epstein: Okay, interesting. Thanks for your time.

Andrew Robb: Good on you. Thanks

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