Andrew Robb: The Government will in good faith consider Labor’s proposals and we will respond accordingly. For some time now we have been saying that if the Opposition put forward any proposals of substance, that we would look at them. Until today all we have heard are a series of sound bites and accusations for months and months, and nothing specific; absolutely nothing of substance has come forward from the Labor Party over those months of rhetoric and abuse, especially by the unions and the misrepresentations that we have heard for some time now.

We do welcome Labor’s belated acceptance that in no way can the agreement with China be opened up; that the Opposition basically is looking for added comfort for provisions that in fact already exist within the agreement.

Could I just also say – as I have repeatedly sought to make clear – the principle criteria by which we will judge and measure these proposals, are firstly that we won’t entertain anything that discriminates against China; if embodied in these exposure drafts there are measures which would lead to discrimination against China, that will rule out consideration for that proposal.

Secondly, if anything contravenes the firm commitments that we have made in this Free Trade Agreement, again we will not be considering such measures. It does appear that Labor’s number one objective– in fact as Bill Shorten described it – is to seek clarity and comfort around existing safeguards for Australian workers associated with the Investment Facilitation Arrangements, which goes to projects over $150 million and where needed, if there is a shortage of skilled workers, that they could seek to bring them in, and bring them in quickly.

Now these safeguards, which see labour market testing as a mandatory requirement for all occupations sought under these Investment Facilitation Arrangements, they are indeed already clear Government policy; the safeguards that Penny Wong and Bill Shorten talked about are in fact already clear Government policy, and are embedded in the requirements by the Department of Immigration, the guidelines that apply for this provision.

When they go to enact – if this thing comes into force – when the Department of Immigration seeks to facilitate the operation of these measures, the guidelines that they are required to follow– that are embedded in the department’s own policy documents – are already clear Government policy, and they are totally consistent with the provisions that were there under Labor.

In fact, the recent Labor Government itself introduced many of these provisions, and certainly the worker protections under the IFAs are exactly identical to those that existed under the similar provisions that the Labor Party brought in for Gina Rinehart’s operation and others.

In fact we have enhanced those provisions; under the Enterprise Migration Agreements with Labor, they required a labour market assessment, under our IFAs, we require labour market analysis as Labor did, but we also require labour market testing – that was not a condition of the enterprise agreements.

The Government’s number one priority at this stage, is to do everything we reasonably can to ensure that the China Free Trade Agreement can be brought into force before the end of this year, so the benefits can flow quickly to our exporters and to our consumers and our importers for that matter, because many of our importers will have cheaper inputs into their manufacturing processes.

Entry into force this year will see an immediate round of tariff cuts, which will be followed on January 1st, by a second round of cuts; so if we can finish this deal and have it in place and have it legislated and exchange letters with China before the end of the year, then we will see the first round of tariff cuts, which are worth about $600 million – $300 million to agriculture alone. If we don’t get it in this year, and it is pushed into next year, we lose that benefit.

Labor needs to consider this through the prism of national interest and not the narrow self-interest of the militant trade unions, the CFMEU and the ETU. For decades we have enjoyed a high level of bi-partisan support for freer trade, because sensible and level heads on both sides of the parliament have agreed that freer trade is in the interest of jobs and growth, and a lot of our quality of life – compared to the rest of the world – has derived from the freer trade that we have. I do feel that ultimately, in regard to this agreement with our biggest trading partner, we are hopeful that this tradition will continue.

Can I make one final point before I open it up for a couple of questions, having received something of some substance from the Labor Party – there is a fair bit of detail in it – we don’t intend to hold these discussions in public; Peter Dutton, our Immigration Minister, and myself, will study these proposals, and then we will have genuine discussions with the Labor Party and hopefully it will identify a pathway to get this thing through the parliament.

We have got to move quickly and get this in place and get this behind us; we can’t go to the wire and take the chance that this will go through; we can’t take anything for granted. There are significant anti-trade people within the Opposition and if we allow this to go to the wire, one: it’s going to continue to confuse our trading partner with the nature of the debate here, and more importantly it could lead to silly things happening at the end.

Journalist: Given that you have had informal discussions with Senator Wong and what you’ve seen today; is there anything prima facie that you see you have a problem with that affects the substance of the text, and how quickly do you want to get around a table for formal talks with Senator Wong?

Andrew Robb: To the second part first, the sooner the better. As soon as we have been able to get our head around it and see if it meets those principles that I established, and then see if it’s workable; in many case it does seem to be duplicating existing requirements, but we will talk through all of that.

I saw this document for the first time an hour ago; we have had informal discussions to test the appetite for getting together, we established that. The Labor Party has been saying for two or three or more weeks that this deal is a good deal and it should be supported, so there is that appetite and preparedness so we want to act in good faith in that regard, but I haven’t had a chance to study it to the point of answering your question. I will get all my experts to tell me that; sometimes in legislation, one thing that I have learnt is that one word can make a hell of a difference so I don’t want to presume that.

Journalist: What’s your view on increasing the base rate of 457 visa holders; the Government has frozen it, Labor wants to reinstate indexation of it. What’s your thought in principle? Would that potentially jeopardise and push up the cost of projects in which people want to invest?

Andrew Robb: Well again, I need to have a look at it but I’ll just make two points, one: I did see that they accepted that there needed to be ministerial discretion in regard to certain areas like abattoirs and the tourism sector. The second point I’d make is that there was an extensive independent review taken of these provisions and at the end of it, changes and improvements were made – with support from both sides of the parliament – but at that stage, the rate was frozen pending a two year independent review, which is somewhat underway now, so we’ll see how that measures up against whatever it is that they’ve put in this series of proposals.

Journalist: Mr Robb if you make any changes along the lines of what Labor are seeking will that be an acknowledgement that there was some problems in the ChAFTA deal in its original form?

Andrew Robb: No, not in my view.

Journalist: Why not?

Andrew Robb: Because firstly, they have accepted that in no way can the substance or the document – the agreement – be opened up in any sense, including the MoU and including the side letters; if this enters into force with some of the provisions which they’re talking about or without, nothing will change. Secondly, at first glance, the things that they are asking for either provide clarity or they provide comfort to existing measures.

Journalist: So Minister in relation to labour market testing, given that it is Government policy on these IFAs to have it anyway, will there be any obstacles to putting that in legislation?

Andrew Robb: Well that’s what we’ve got to look at; that goes to what I think is their principle concern, frankly.

Journalist: But you’re happy to do that?

Andrew Robb: Well we’ve got to look at how we do that; what does it mean; what act is it in, obviously probably the migration act; what implications; how does it undermine flexibility; what other commitments we’ve made to other countries at other times; all of these things.

This has to apply not just to China, but to the application of – in the case of that issue, these major projects over $150 million – that opportunity is there for every company in every country, so we have to look beyond China; we have to make sure that this doesn’t discriminate against China and that it’s not a one-off provision just for China, as that will undermine the integrity of the document, and it will be a breach of good faith with the Chinese, who are very proud of this agreement.

They made a lot of concessions to Australia in this agreement; they are looking at Australia to help them transform their economy into a service-based economy where the jobs are. Now all of these things are captured within this Free Trade Agreement and we are not going to – in any way – interfere with the integrity of this document.

Journalist: Minister, just on a separate agreement, there was a release out of Peru of the TPP’s IP chapter; have you seen that and is it an accurate reflection on what you’ve agreed upon? There’s been criticism by experts in that field that a lot has been surrendered to American intellectual property law; what would you say to that?

Andrew Robb: Well one: I haven’t seen the document. Secondly, the strongest anti-reaction of all the countries, as I understand, is within the United States and it is led by the pharmaceutical companies.

Senator Hatch was damning; ‘woefully inadequate’ was his description, and he led the charge on the pharmaceuticals. All I can say to you is that what the agreement does – and it’s very clear in the text – is allow two streams of approach to providing IP protection for pharmaceuticals. One stream is the American approach, and it says: or alternatively, countries can follow the second stream, which is basically our system; it is five years of data protection, it is a robust patent system – which the US hasn’t got – and it’s other measures that some countries have got, measures that we’ve got – the one and a half years of approvals for instance, to get a biosimilar into place – all of these things, they all combine to provide what we think is the right balance of protection of IP, without putting upward pressure on prices.

The week after this TPP enters into force – if it gets the approval of other countries – our health system will have changed in no way compared with the week before this enters into force.

Journalist: On data exclusivity, are there some really complex molecules where it goes to eight years rather than the five?

Andrew Robb: No; as I said, there’s absolutely no change for Australia. Everyone thought that the Americans are here, and we’re here, so we’ll have to find somewhere in the middle; that’s driven everyone to think that we must give up some data protection, or we must increase some data protection, but we’re not. They’re there with the data protection program; basically that’s all it is, it’s all data protection driven. The US has got twelve years, but we’re there with five years, but in combination with a patent system which works and we’re not going to change it.

We are not going to change anything, because our system works; it delivers an equivalent amount of market protection to the companies that are producing these drugs, as the alternative approach of the Americans.

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