Leigh Sales: Andrew Robb you’re in Shanghai so let me ask you first of all about the volatility that we’ve seen on the market there over the past couple of weeks; is there more to come and what are the implications for Australia?
Andrew Robb: I’m not sure what the future holds; I don’t think anyone really does. There doesn’t seem to be the nervousness that we’re seeing expressed around the world here. People have been predicting for some time that there would need to be a correction, and now that it’s happened, there’s no need to get flustered I don’t think. The market here is still 40 points ahead of where it was this time last year. For Australia though there is a silver lining in that Chinese investors are going to be more likely to be looking for a safe haven for some of their investment monies, and Australia in that sense is looming very large.
Leigh Sales: You’ve been talking about the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement over there, how aware are Chinese government and business officials that the deal may not survive the Australian Senate?
Andrew Robb: All government officials, all business people, they are all somewhat confused. They’ve heard about it, they can’t understand it because the enthusiasm here has been quite remarkable, amongst Chinese business as well as expat Australian businesses that are in Hong Kong and Shanghai where I’ve been to date. They do want a reassurance, which I’ve been giving them, that the Australian Government is 150 per cent committed to seeing this thing through later this year, for entry into force before the end of the year.
Leigh Sales: How can you offer that reassurance though when you’re not sure how the numbers will stack up in the Senate and whether it will survive?
Andrew Robb: I can’t believe that at the end of the day, the opposition would oppose a deal with China which provides preferential access to the biggest market in the world; a deal which is going to provide enormous diversification within our economy; a deal which will drive significant important investment; and a deal that will drive growth and jobs. I just can’t believe that they would engage in the economic sabotage that would be involved in blocking this deal. I think there are enough people within the opposition who will prevail, and that’s my hope.
Leigh Sales: What would it mean for Australia-China relations if it fell through?
Andrew Robb: It would be a very huge disadvantage, a big impact. China has placed enormous trust and store in this relationship and this agreement. There are already significant business arrangements, new business models being put into place in anticipation of this agreement taking effect later this year, and to knock that on the head would be simply a disaster for jobs in Australia, a disaster for opportunities, and would have a really material negative impact on our relationship.
Leigh Sales: On another matter, the Government says it’s keen to keep the focus on jobs and growth, this FTA is part of that. How does that fit with the Treasurer’s decision to head up a parliamentary republican group?
Andrew Robb: For my part, it’s a fiftieth order issue and I think the Government is overwhelmingly, including Joe Hockey, focused solely on maintaining the jobs growth. We’re in a big transition in the economy; despite the fact the mining boom is over – and all of those construction jobs are no longer – despite that we’re still seeing unemployment unexpectedly holding at around six per cent. So the economy is still around the fastest growing in the developed world, despite the transition that we’re making.
Leigh Sales: So I take it then that you won’t be joining that republican group and helping Joe Hockey with that push?
Andrew Robb: No look as I said, our focus is solely on how we can ensure that we maintain the prosperity and the living standards and the job opportunities in Australia; that is a big job at the moment.
Leigh Sales: Let me ask you something that I asked your colleague Malcolm Turnbull earlier this week; it’s six months ago as we know that Tony Abbott survived a spill motion against his leadership. Since then the Coalition has remained in an election losing position in the polls and Tony Abbott’s personal approval rating has remained in the doldrums. Given all of that, why is the Coalition sticking with his leadership?
Andrew Robb: Well in the interim, we did have a Budget and that Budget has restored, from my observation, enormous confidence to the small business sector.
Leigh Sales: It isn’t reflected in the polls.
Andrew Robb: No, I’m sorry it was.
Leigh Sales: You’re not in an election winning position.
Andrew Robb: Not now, but what I’m saying is in the month or two after the Budget, the confidence factor in the economy, as well as from small business, has had a big impact; that confidence is still there and we saw our primary vote climb up to 41. Now subsequently we had the problem with entitlements and a couple of other issues, which have in a way erased all that advantage that we were starting to see.
Now we’ve had a few road bumps in the last month or so, if we can put those things behind us, if we can focus on the plan that we have got to create jobs and to maintain major confidence in the small business sector, and to help transition our economy to take advantage of what’s going on in China and other places, I believe, and I think my colleagues believe, that we can restore our political fortunes and be in a competitive position at the next election, with Tony Abbott as Prime Minister.
Leigh Sales: Andrew Robb thank you for making the time to speak to us from Shanghai.
Andrew Robb: Thanks very much Leigh.
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