China-Australia Free Trade Agreement

08 September 2015

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (12:54):  I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak about the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. The Labor side of the parliament has a very proud record when it comes to trade liberalisation in this country.

For 40 years we have been the party that has stood up for opening ourselves up to the region and beyond when it comes to free trade, particularly as it relates to engagement with China. In all of these ways we have a very proud record, and I have always associated myself in the broad spectrum of people's views when it comes to trade liberalisation. Personally, I have always considered myself to be someone who supports free trade. Our party is a party that supports free trade because we understand that it does create jobs and create opportunities in Australia, as other speakers have mentioned. I also support a free trade agreement with China, but I want it to be the best possible deal for Australia. This means maximising the job opportunities for Australians and minimising the risks of exploitation. I do acknowledge that there are upsides in this agreement for sectors of our economy, but I share my colleagues' concerns about two aspects in particular: labour market testing and skills assessments.

Last year the Prime Minister said he would keep labour market testing under Australia's temporary skilled migration program. As honourable members would be aware, labour market testing requires employers to advertise jobs to Australians first before turning to overseas workers. When you look at the text of the agreement, as I and many of my colleagues have, you see that this promise has been broken—a bit like all of the other promises that have been broken during the first two years of the Abbott government, which we mark today.

We asked the Prime Minister in the parliament about a direct quote from the agreement that said there will be no requirement for labour market testing to enter into an investment facilitation arrangement. The Prime Minister said, 'Oh, it goes on to say that there will be labour market testing in a memorandum of understanding'. It does not do that. The memorandum of understanding says that when employers on IFA projects enter labour agreements with the government, these agreements may include labour market testing. The China free trade agreement has turned labour market testing from a mandated requirement into something that is just an optional extra when it comes to our labour market. It also completely excludes labour market testing for several categories of workers on 457 visas, including service suppliers, installers and others. That is set out very clearly in chapter 10 of the FTA, which says that neither party shall:

… require labour market testing, economic needs testing or other procedures of similar effect …

That is a particularly troubling mislead from the Prime Minister when it comes to the detail of his party's own agreement, and it is even more concerning when you consider that even today the trade minister, the guy who was supposed to have negotiated this deal, the guy who was supposed to have crossed the t's and dotted the i's before he signed this deal, got it horribly wrong when he tried to claim that the FTA only removes labour market testing for Chinese executives. The Prime Minister must know that this is a woeful lie from the trade minister. He must know that that is not the case in his own agreement. You do get the impression that the government are just making it up as they go along when they go to the detail of this agreement.

You also have to wonder, given their reluctance to sit down in good faith and negotiate and talk about these issues that are concerning to people outside of the parliament, if they really want to pass this agreement given the way they have been behaving. It is not a big ask to sit down with the Labor Party and work through our concerns. As I said before, we want a high quality agreement with China. We want one that creates jobs, that maximises Australian jobs and minimises exploitation. They also must know that you do not need to change or renegotiate the FTA to protect Australian jobs; the parliament can provide the assurance we seek in the enabling legislation. If it does, it could ensure that the enabling legislation includes mandatory labour market testing for projects over $150 million and ensure that Australians always get the first opportunity before overseas workers are considered. It must also ensure that Australian workplace skills and safety standards are maintained and legislated to ensure our wages are not undercut. These are not unreasonable requests. As I said before, we do support freer trade. We are the party of freer trade and Asian engagement. We want this deal to be the very best it can be, and that means sitting down to maximise Australian jobs and minimise exploitation.