Justin Smith: Mr Robb, thank you for your time.
Andrew Robb: It is my pleasure.
Justin Smith: Let me take the opposing view here, what is Labor’s argument here as you see it?
Andrew Robb: Well that has been the difficulty. Bill Shorten made an impassioned plea on ABC radio this morning, saying that he didn’t come into this place just to be a rubber stamp and certainly not the Leader of the Opposition, which I think is fair enough. It is quite legitimate to question things and make sure things are as good as they can be but the trouble is; all the things that they are mouthing are the attack points that the CFMEU put out months ago.
Every one of the points that they claim are a problem have not stood up to scrutiny from anyone – there is no one out there, other than themselves saying that we should make a whole lot of changes to the agreement. The trouble is that they are asking us to legislate a whole raft of changes that they didn’t themselves legislate when they were in power and implementing these free trade agreements.
The same things are in the China deal as were in Japan, the Korean, the Chilean agreement, the Thai agreement, some of which they were responsible for; so it does suggest that they are playing politics and in doing this they are risking our future. This is such a huge deal.
Justin Smith: This is obviously not all about appeasing Bill Shorten but he is calling on certain guarantees over Australian jobs. Are you able to give that, not just to him but to Australia? Are you able to give a guarantee and say look we are not going to be losing these jobs and here’s why, here’s how we can guarantee it, so pull your head in?
Andrew Robb: What I can guarantee is that there is absolutely no difference in regard to worker protections in the China deal than existed in the Japanese deal, the Korean deal, the Chilean deal, the Thai deal and others, the ASEAN deal. There is no difference. Now he is asking us to do things that are specific to China and I am not sure what they are yet – he makes general points but they haven’t given us anything but they keep making these points about workers not being protected.
Well, if they are not protected under the things we have put into the China deal, why didn’t Labor make changes in their time because their deals had exactly the same provisions? In fact, I knew this would be an area we would have a lot of grief over if we made any changes, so during the negotiations I said to my negotiators, every time they came up with something else in this space, is it the same as Labor had when they were power? If I said it once I must have said it 100 times and they always confirmed it or if it wasn’t they had to go and change it because I did not want to get outside of that.
Justin Smith: Wouldn’t the better starting point have been: Is this going to be better for Australia, not will it appease the Opposition?
Andrew Robb: Well it would have been but I had done the similar things in the South Korean and Japanese agreement and they had done similar things and I thought this is acceptable to Australia and my team said this will work and it’s been road tested, and road tested now for several years in several different agreements. It is politics and the other thing that makes you wonder; the CFMEU, they went out the night when we signed the agreement in June with my Chinese counterpart in Canberra, later that day we released all of the text, thousands of pages. That night in 12 or 14 electorates all of which happened to be marginal seats, the CFMEU ran all these ads which were really directed toward China and the lack of protection. Now they had had no opportunity at that stage to look at the detail so they have clearly spent weeks, if not months preparing all this material which went live to air the day the thing was signed without the knowledge of what was in the agreement for goodness sake.
Again, it is a political exercise. We have the Royal Commission into the unions which the unions hate because it is showing up all the corruption, especially in the unions like the CFMEU. I think they are on a crusade to get rid of the Government and in the process obviously help get the Labor Party into power. So I suspect whatever happens with this agreement, with the China deal, they will still keep the barrage going.
But first thing’s first; let’s get this deal in place because it is going to mean literally tens of thousands of new jobs for Australians in the years ahead.
Justin Smith: Will you Minister, concede anything to Bill Shorten to help get this through? Is there anything that you are prepared to give, as you said he was talking about guarantees, are you going to try and find some way of doing that or is the deal the deal and that’s it?
Andrew Robb: Unless something was raised and it has just gone through the Treaties Committee – which is members of all sides and public hearings and all the rest – there has been nothing raised in those hearings that has not been answered effectively. There has been nothing raised by Bill Shorten that hasn’t been accommodated within the agreement or was not part of past agreements. He hasn’t raised anything of substance yet and I think they are madly flaying to line up with the CFMEU when really they have found nothing, and if we make changes to this which is specific to China and that is the other worrying part of it, they seem to be directing it at China; China will say ‘We have spent 10 years on this thing’. They are very proud of this because they think it is the most liberalised agreement with any other country in the world. We have a head start on a whole lot of things before they give these concessions elsewhere in the world in the years ahead. They will feel that we have snubbed them and this will affect our relationship, not just the economic relationship but a broader relationship in a very profound way.
Justin Smith: You mentioned Chile before and you mentioned Japan and South Korea, they are not in the scale of China – is there a certain fear because, you look at the Newspoll yesterday and look the Newspoll is not the be-all-and-end-all but not every Australian is convinced about the free trade deal. I mean let’s put Bill Shorten and the CFMEU out of the picture, not everybody is convinced. Are they afraid of the enormity of China?
Andrew Robb: Well they are already our biggest trading partner and I wouldn’t talk down the other two agreements – Japan and Korea – as they are both very significant agreements and we are getting a lot of benefits already.
Justin Smith: But it doesn’t carry the fear I guess.
Andrew Robb: I mean the CFMEU have spent $12 million; that is probably half what any party spends in an election campaign and the ads are just in your face and they are just saying you are going to lose your job. Full stop. No qualification. And they keep using China, China, China and they are trying to scare people about the hordes coming from the north and invading Australia. This is the subtext to everything that they’ve done.
Justin Smith: If you don’t mind Minister, put the unions and the Opposition out of the way, not every person is convinced. Is there a fear around China that they are huge and they can swallow us up and not even chew?
Andrew Robb: No, well there may well be amongst some people but I think those people that are concerned about the China deal are invariably concerned about any deal for that matter because it’s part of human nature for people to always be worried about change and what will it mean and what are the uncertainties. That is a legitimate concern for people to have, and we are going to run ads and things to show people what the consequences are of these agreements so that people will hopefully get more comfortable with them and hopefully our businesses will grab the opportunity.
Justin Smith: The thing is why is it such a tough sell? You have to take those ads; you are fighting that Newspoll yesterday so not everyone is convinced. Why is it such a tough sell?
Andrew Robb: Well again I say to you, I ran a political party for years and I know the power of advertising. Don’t underestimate it. These ads you don’t see so many of them in the cities except on the major shows like The Voice and things. These advertisements are going into many country areas, in marginal seats, dedicated television and big billboards outside Mackay that say Tony Abbott has given away your job; you are going to lose your job, full-stop with no explanation as to why or how this happened. So I think some of that resistance is because of this campaign. We didn’t have it with the Japanese agreement or the South Korean agreement and people were a lot happier about this because this sort of xenophobic attack was not in the mix.
Justin Smith: Just finally, to somebody who is not aligned to any political party but is concerned about the deal, what would your message be?
Andrew Robb: My message is that we have 25 years now of uninterrupted economic growth which no other developed country has had because we are a free, open trading economy. These deals including China open us even more and in fact the China deal is going to give us a head start, not just with selling goods into China but with our services; so anything to do with health, education, engineering, financial services, nursing or teaching. All these opportunities will be available. They are looking for our people and they are paying top dollar. This is going to open up the next generation of opportunity for our young people across all the services sectors. These new emerging economies need to become services based economies because that is where the jobs are and to help them get to that, Australia is sitting here with world class services across 100 different areas. This opens up a whole new world and it is going to set us up for the century with jobs and peace of mind and opportunity.
Justin Smith: If we miss this chance this time are we in a lot of strife?
Andrew Robb: We are. All Australians will rue the day if this thing is put down and Labor’s got the numbers in the Senate of course, so we need their support to get this up, but it will have very wide-ranging consequences. China for one will walk away, but it will also affect our reputation with so many other markets in the world.
Justin Smith: Just before I let you go, I do want to stick on that. You do need Labor’s support to get this through the Senate. Can I say again: is there anything that you are willing to concede or will that destroy the deal?
Andrew Robb: Well, there is nothing that I have seen that is not China specific. If we do something with China, we are meant to have a non-discriminatory migration policy etc. They are asking us to do things that are China specific and that is where the xenophobia comes through, and they have made no good case for it.
Justin Smith: I understand that but Andrew if you don’t mind, you are at a stalemate aren’t you. You are not going to be able to move ahead. Shorten is not going to concede and you don’t have anything that you are able to give him so how is this going to keep looking?
Andrew Robb: We will put it to a vote and see if common sense does prevail. That is what I expect; common sense will prevail at the end of the day and that is why more people are coming out and demanding that this agreement go through successfully; that it is important for their business and their kids’ jobs, it is important for the future of the country. Every former Labor leader and every other current Labor leader at the State and Territory level have all come out in support and said we should sign the deal. We can’t open it (the agreement) up. There would have to be a good reason that everyone accepted and there is nothing that they have articulated in months now which has stood up under scrutiny. It is all just rhetoric and it’s bluff and it’s not a problem, and invariably everything that they have put up they didn’t do themselves when they were doing deals.
Justin Smith: It’s good talking to you, thanks Minister.
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