Kieran Gilbert: With me this morning is the Trade Minister Andrew Robb; a lot to talk to you about regarding the China Free Trade Agreement, but the big story of the day is the refugee debate.  Where do you see this going?  Do you think the Government will have a one-off humanitarian intake of these specific refugees that we’re seeing right now?

Andrew Robb: Well obviously the dimension of what is going on requires a special effort; Peter Dutton was sent yesterday to Geneva to sit down with our friends and allies and work out how we can best contribute to all of this. So we are not going to make any decisions on the run, but of course we have been increasing the humanitarian intake from 13,000 to 18,000 by 2019 already, because stopping the boats has given us the capacity now to respond to these things and be in control of it, so I think you will find at the end of the day we will respond as Australia always has – on both sides of politics – with these sorts of issues.

Kieran Gilbert: Do you think that Josh Frydenberg’s argument, about the special one-off intake like John Howard did in 1999 with the Kosovars, makes sense?

Andrew Robb: We took in 4,400 last year because we saw a special case, so we will be viewing whatever decision in context. I think there’s a special case here; as to what component comes out of the existing humanitarian intake or whether there is any increase on that, we will have to wait and see. We have to do this in a considered way; we have got all the steps in place but when Peter Dutton comes back soon to report, I think we will make some decisions that the country will be proud of.

Kieran Gilbert: Regardless there’s got to be a special effort as you say?

Andrew Robb: There’s got to be a special effort; there is a humanitarian crisis going on in Europe with the flood of refugees and we have to make our contribution.

Kieran Gilbert: Alright, let’s turn to the China Free Trade Agreement; first of all Newspoll today shows 35 per cent of people are opposed to the FTA. Are you worried, because that is not a small number, do you think that the scare campaign from the unions is resonating?

Andrew Robb: It is certainly having an impact, but they’ve spent $12 million; that’s almost half of what a party would spend in a whole campaign. And it has been brutal in the sense of frightening people and scaring people and making out that Australia is going to be invaded by Chinese. I mean it is just so irresponsible, but it is biting at the edges, no doubt. I do feel though, that there is still a strong majority who support the Free Trade Agreement, and once people come to realise the unbelievable opportunities in all sorts of areas of endeavour in Australia, then I think you will start to see that the Labor Party’s tactics with the unions will be deeply discredited.

Kieran Gilbert: Your critics point to Article 10 of the agreement, paragraph three where is says that ‘Australia shall not require labour market testing, economic needs testing or other procedures of similar effect as a condition for temporary entry.’ That’s being seen basically as opening the doors to Chinese 457 workers. What is your response to that criticism?

Andrew Robb: They are putting this around on social media and all sorts of areas as though it applies across the board. That provision applies to senior executives within a company; just like Lendlease goes to New York and builds 14 high rise towers, as they have done, they take their management team with them. That provision applies to those sorts of people within a company, not to skilled workers. It is quite disingenuous the way they are taking a little piece out of a longstanding arrangement. And of course China has given us the same provision. It is in the Japanese agreement; it’s in the Korean agreement. It’s in every agreement.

Kieran Gilbert: So there is no difference between this Chinese FTA in terms of its provision of foreign workers, to Japan and Korean agreements? 

Andrew Robb: There is no difference. Let me demonstrate that we have not changed anything. We’ve just more-or-less finished the enabling legislation; it’s two fairly boring Customs Bills which change the tariff schedules. There is no Migration Act; there’s no changes. Why? Because we haven’t changed anything, so we are not putting up any enabling legislation; that sort of makes the point I think.

Kieran Gilbert: So in terms of foreign workers just to reiterate, this China FTA, in terms of the mechanisms around foreign labour as part of Chinese funded projects – whether it is 15 per cent owned or whatever the stake is – it is no different to what Labor has already supported in terms of the Japan and Korea FTAs?

Andrew Robb: Well, certainly not in terms of Japan and Korea. Compared with what Labor did in office there is a difference which I have to admit to, and that is with these so called IFA projects. We have actually tightened it compared to Labor. They had a provision in their Enterprise Migration Agreements that just market analysis was necessary, not labour market testing, which is the difference. We have required and we put a document out in May this year, two months before we signed, to all employers that clearly states that every 457 category has to have labour market testing not just a market analysis. So we have materially tightened the provisions that apply to major projects, where you would get significant numbers if they were needed coming in, so Labor hasn’t got a leg to stand on.

Kieran Gilbert: In terms of the numbers we are talking about, this is less than 1 per cent of the entire workforce in Australia; I think it is 0.9 per cent of the workforce are on 457s. How many of those are subject to labour market testing, because there is a fair chunk that aren’t, under the arrangements put in under Labor?

Andrew Robb: There’s 100,000 457s at the moment. There were 134,000 when Labor was in office but to be fair, we had a mining boom so we needed more skilled labour. There’s 100,000 now, 84,000 of those are executives that come in with companies…

Kieran Gilbert:…and don’t require labour market testing?

Andrew Robb: …or installers of equipment; they come in and install a $2 million piece of automated equipment and then they leave. So there’s 16,000 that are required with labour market testing. I make the point; there wouldn’t be an abattoir in the country that would be open today if they didn’t have 457s. No Australian wants to work in abattoirs and so that is what it is there for; for jobs that people don’t want to do in Australia or they’re not trained for it, they can come in under 457s.

Kieran Gilbert: Okay, and so in terms of the Labor and union campaign, have you reassured the Chinese? I know the Treasurer has spoken to the Chinese Finance Minister in Istanbul at the weekend, have you spoken to your counterpart to say that this deal is not precarious and that it will go ahead?  

Andrew Robb: I have spoken not only to my counterpart, but I was in China last week with 35 CEOs and the sense of anticipation about the opportunities is enormous. But I talked to my counterpart; I had a long session with him.

Kieran Gilbert: You’ve reassured him?

Andrew Robb: I have taken him through this and absolutely sought to reassure him, and also met with one of the members of the Politburo.

Kieran Gilbert: How do you reassure him when your opponents could capitulate here and seek to revoke some of the key treaties?

Andrew Robb: Well I have explained to him how disingenuous it is, and some of the longstanding opposition of say the CFMEU, a couple of our unions – but it is not the majority of unions, it is a couple of unions – and that in the end, common sense in my view will prevail, but the Government will do whatever it has to do; a 150 per cent commitment to get this through.

Kieran Gilbert: So the Chinese won’t walk away?

Andrew Robb: You can’t guarantee anything because yes, Labor has got the numbers on this, but the Chinese are confident that it will come into place. If it doesn’t this would very materially affect our relationship with China in a hundred different ways, and it would be the biggest blow to our international trade and relationships that we could remember.

Kieran Gilbert: Finally, do you get any sense that they might walk away right now; is that looking like a prospect?

Andrew Robb: No. They are very proud; this is the first and the biggest and by far the best deal they have done with any developed country in the world. They are very proud of the fact that it is a showcase of their capacity to deliver a world class agreement. So that is their state of mind and they are just confused at the moment with what is going on here and they are assuming that the Government’s position will prevail.

Kieran Gilbert: I guess we have to remember that China is the largest trading partner for 100 other countries, it is not just us. So just in terms of the Newspoll; can the Prime Minister turn this around? It  looks like it is set in concrete the view of him?

Andrew Robb: No I don’t think it is. I think we still have a bit of residue from a few of the road bumps we had with entitlements and whatever. We’ve stabilised and started to move, and also politics is a relative business, and I see Shorten’s popularity and people’s assessment of him has tanked and fallen badly, so if we stick to the things that we have been doing the last two years; we have had a very solid record, after the Budget we did see a significant improvement so if we get back to that, we’re right.     

Kieran Gilbert: If you look at the Howard comparison though, John Howard had Peter Costello to help turn it around. Joe Hockey has copped a lot of flak from your colleagues; he’s no Peter Costello is he?

Andrew Robb: We’ve done all the things we said we would do and we’ve created 336,000 new jobs and they are not in mining because mining has been coming off the boil. 336,000 new jobs in two years, that is four times more than Labor was creating when we took over, so we’ve got a pattern of activity and we will be there, I’m telling you.

Kieran Gilbert: Mr Robb, thanks.

Andrew Robb: Thanks Kieran.

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