Tom Elliott: I’ve had many emails and had various people – and Bill Shorten – saying it’s (ChAFTA) going to cost jobs. Alan, who just rang up, is worried about Chinese workers coming to Australia; what do you say to that?
Andrew Robb: Well firstly they are not questions, they are assertions. And from that very first night after we signed the agreement with my Chinese equivalent, tens of thousands of robocalls came from the CFMEU. They had no opportunity – none whatsoever – to read the detail of the agreement that was available that day, and yet they had made these assertions about China – they didn’t have any trouble with any other country – that they were going to flood Australia with cheap Chinese labour.
Tom Elliott: Okay, well could that happen under the Free Trade Agreement that we have signed?
Andrew Robb: No. Why would we do that? Just stand back for a minute and think; I’ve got kids and grandchildren and they have businesses in Australia. Am I going to flood Australia with cheap Chinese labour to take the potential jobs of my grandchildren? I mean it just beggars belief that that would be our motivation.
But secondly and more importantly – apart from motivation – what does the deal say? That is the most important thing to look at. The deal, and I was very keen to ensure this when we negotiated it, because I knew we would have trouble if we started to play around with work place relations issues in this deal; I knew we would have trouble. So I insisted all the way through that whatever we do, it must be consistent with the rules – all of the conditions, all of the employment assessments – they must be consistent with what is already in the legislation.
Tom Elliott: Well let’s deal with what the Free Trade Agreement does stand for. Now I personally believe that free trade is a good thing. We are a net exporter to China; we sell more to the Chinese than we import back. I think that allowing countries to buy and sell freely is by-and-large a good thing. Firstly, what is the status of the agreement now? I know it has been signed but does it have to be ratified by the Parliament?
Andrew Robb: It has to be ratified by both countries. So they’ve got a council it goes through and ours has to sit on the table in the Parliament for 15 days.
Tom Elliott: Now given that you are the Government, therefore you have the majority. Is there any doubt whether it will be ratified?
Andrew Robb: Well it has to go through the Senate as well. And now we’ve got a deal which is the best deal China has done with any country in the world, and that is a view shared around the world. It is the best deal we have ever had with any country and the prospect is that if we get this blocked in the Senate, as Labor is indicating it will, then this thing will fall over. The Chinese have spent 10 years negotiating with us; I can tell as I was there last week, there is a great sense of anticipation about this coming in.
Tom Elliott: I saw that former Labor leader; former Prime Minister Bob Hawke came out earlier this week fully in support of the deal. Bill Shorten seems to be hedging his bets, but he has stated publically that there is a deal with Labor to be done, so obviously he wants you to deal with him to get it through the Senate. So what is Labor asking for; are there any changes?
Andrew Robb: Well I would really like to know, because all of the things they say are wrong with it – and that they say we’ve changed like labour market testing – we haven’t changed. The same 457 visa arrangements for temporary workers coming in are the same as it was when Labor was in power. That is my point about every little provision about foreign workers coming in. And of course, under Labor we had 127,000 people on 457s – the highest ever – and they put in these provisions which we have not sought to change.
Tom Elliott: So what you are saying is that the rules around 457 visas apply, notwithstanding the trade agreements simply still apply; I mean foreign workers can be brought in but only under certain circumstances?
Andrew Robb: Only if there aren’t Australians, and they have to prove that by labour market testing, if there aren’t Australians who are available to do that work at that time.
Tom Elliott: Okay so what about the benefits of free trade; I mean as I said I believe we do still have a trade surplus with China, or the way the iron ore prices have gone down I’m not so certain anymore, but what is the upside? I mean will we have cheaper products from China here on our supermarket shelves.
Andrew Robb: We most certainly will; they are strong in electronics and computers and all these sorts of things.
Tom Elliott: Clothing?
Andrew Robb: Yes clothing, although we are getting a lot of specialist clothing now. It’s now a sector where a lot of robotics has taken over, and now the Australian clothing industry can be quite competitive. But things across the electronics sphere and also parts that are imported; nearly 70 per cent of the things that we import are inputs into something that an Australian company is doing.
So if their inputs are cheaper, our own Australian companies – when they sell their products on the world market – are more competitive.
Tom Elliott: What about exports though from Australia to China? Now the obvious ones are things like agriculture, so beef and dairy, wine, wool, rice other things like that; will we be able to export more of those to China as a result of this agreement?
Andrew Robb: Because of this deal we will have benefits in terms of much less protection. A lot of their tariffs will go to zero over time. And they have not given this benefit to anyone else in the world. So you talk about beef; it has already gone up hugely in anticipation of what is coming down the line in China for us.
But dairy products; 20 per cent tariff down to zero. When I went up there last week I took 35 CEOs of companies who could increase their sales. Blackmores – who make vitamins – they have put 100 people on in the Northern Beaches in Sydney to increase their sales because they know they will be hugely more competitive after January when the agreement comes in than they are now.
Tom Elliott: Mr Robb can I just say personally I think it is a good thing, but I must say I don’t think the case has been well enough made to average Australians, to people who say ‘Gee I see a lot of Chinese buying a lot of our houses at our auctions’ and they worry about jobs being lost and there is no doubt the economy is slowing at the moment. What would you say as Trade Minister to people who feel uncertain about this agreement? What would you say to sell it to them?
Andrew Robb: I’d say that as an economy we have been riding off the back of iron ore and coal and gas; that boom has finished. That is what happens with resources, they go up and down.
Tom Elliott: So let’s acknowledge that the resources boom is over.
Andrew Robb: And we were relying – from a taxation point of view – on that for tens of billions a year. We’ve got to replace that with other activity across the economy, and the thing about these Free Trade Agreements is that we deliberately set out to conclude these agreements – as we knew this boom was going to finish – so how were we going to give advantage to so many of our services for instance.
Education, it’s our third biggest export. Tourism it’s the fastest growing export; it grew by 10 per cent last year for international tourism. What are we good at? Health; the Chinese are after our health companies – companies that run hospitals, to come and set up in China and own it 100 per cent, open as many as we like, because they want us to train other Chinese. It is the same with aged care centres. They have a real problem because of the one child policy. Our aged care centres, after the end of this year if the agreement comes into place, they can go and open up one or 100, they are owned 100 per cent. No other country has been given this opportunity.
We can open up restaurants, we can open up hotels, and own them 100 per cent. We can go with our architecture firms; there are a thousand architects up there already from Australia and there will be many more. Our water management service abilities, which we are very good in Australia; they need to clean up their pollution in water like there is no tomorrow. All of those people have opportunities. They are ringing to see if there are teachers who can go up on contracts, are there nurses who can come up on a three year contract? All of these things are being opened up, including the financial services sector. The opportunities are unbelievable for us and this China deal is giving us an advantage that no other country has got in the world. Talk about creating jobs for our kids; there will be tens of thousands of jobs created through this exercise.
Tom Elliott: Andrew Robb you should be a salesman; Federal Minister for Trade and Investment, thank you for your time.
Andrew Robb: Thank you very much Tom.
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