ABC Capital Hill

16 October 2015


SUBJECT/S: China-Australia Free Trade Agreement Labour Safeguards; Superannuation Tax Concessions; Malcolm Turnbull

JOURNALIST: Still on matters economic and one of the big talking points this week was once again the Free Trade Agreement with China. Labor released the three changes it wants to the legislation that sits alongside the deal, to provide more protection for local jobs. This week, the opposition also launched an attack on the Prime Minister over his investments in the Cayman Islands - an offshore tax haven. 

To discuss the week, political correspondent Greg Jennett was joined by Labor's newly appointed assistant trade spokesperson, Jim Chalmers. 

JENNETT: Congratulations on your elevation to the frontbench. Let's talk about one of the pressing matters that you and the economic team for Labor are dealing with - the China Free Trade negotiation with the Government. They've said they're going to conduct it behind closed doors but do you have any feel for the likelihood of landing a deal on that?

JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW MINISTER FOR FINANCIAL SERVICES AND SUPERANNUATION: I think it's really important, Greg, that we get a deal on the China Australia Free Trade Agreement.  What Labor's asking for is not too onerous for the government to accept.  Even Andrew Robb has said that it's easy enough to accommodate the sorts of things we want to do.  All we want to do is have some complementary safeguards that ensure that the China Free Trade Agreement maximises Australian jobs and minimises exploitation.  That's not too much to ask.  We welcome the more accommodating noises that are coming out of the Government.  We hope we can get an arrangement because that's the best thing for Australian workers.

JENNETT: We hear from your trade union cousins this week that they still may not be happy or satisfied with the deal if it is landed in the form that Labor's proposed?

CHALMERS: I don't think it would surprise too many people to know that there are a range of views in the broader labour movement about the China Australia Free Trade Agreement.  But a lot of the discussions that I've had, certainly people who represent workers in our community are pleased to know that the Labor Party is in there making sure that we make this the best possible deal for Australian workers. There are all kinds of other advantages in the deal.  We've said that there are some troubling things in the labour market provisions and we want to fix them, and a lot of people are very supportive of that.

JENNETT: The CMFEU and some of the other more strident advocates or arguers against this deal, where does it leave them?

CHALMERS: You'd have to ask the CMFEU what they think about the possible arrangements that we might strike with the Government.  I think certainly they've had a contribution to make to the debate.  As have other unions, as have business groups, community groups and others.  Everybody makes that contribution in a well-motivated way and we take it all on board but at the end of the day we have to do the best we can to get a good deal for Australian workers - and that's what we're doing.

JENNETT: We're looking at the sitting calendar, counting off the weeks for the remainder of this year.  How soon do you think you and the government can get this into the Parliament and potentially passed?

CHALMERS: From my personal point of view, the sooner the better - but the ball's in the Government's court.  We've done the right thing in submitting to the government the very specific changes we want to see to the arrangements that surround the agreement.  So the ball is in Andrew Robb and Malcolm Turnbull's court. We are ready, willing and able to talk with them as soon as and as regularly as they like.  Some of those conversations have already been happening. We've been saying for a long time that we want to play a constructive role.

JENNETT: Malcolm Turnbull also made some noises, I suppose you would regard them as positive noises, about superannuation and particularly an openness of mind to look at the concessions that Labor has already promised to target. Is that - say they are adopted by the government, is that the end of the journey on super tax concessions or would you leap frog ahead and find even more?

CHALMERS: No, Chris Bowen has said that that is the total - that's the sum total of the changes that we propose when it comes to that part of the tax system and that part of the superannuation system, but that doesn't mean there are not other ways we could improve the super system in Australia.  It's the envy of the world. It's a great system. But we do have a problem with the gender gap that is growing between men's and women's super-balances.  We do have still, despite what Malcolm Turnbull said about tax, they're still abolishing the low-income super contribution.  They've still frozen increases in the super guarantee.  There are all kinds of things that they're doing in the superannuation system which we think takes it backwards.  So even if there were to be some kind of agreement on tax concessions, there would still be still lots to talk about in my new portfolio.

JENNETT: Labor's package, you're saying, is not a take it or leave it proposition? You could be on board if you didn't get all of what you want with other changes if the Government were like minded.

CHALMERS: We have a very detailed proposal that's been worked up by Chris Bowen and Andrew Leigh, and Bernie Ripoll before me, worked up with the experts, very well considered, not rushed out at all.  We put that on the table and we said to the Government: if you want to enact this in the Parliament we'll vote for it.  That's our starting point.  We'll wait to hear what they say.  Scott Morrison, unfortunately, has had a different view to Malcolm Turnbull when it comes to these concessions.   We think that they need to be fixed.  It's not acceptable to have 38 per cent of the concessions in superannuation go to the top 10 per cent of earners.   And so, we want to fix that.  We're happy to work with the Government if necessary.

JENNETT: Still on super. It got enmeshed in Labor's pursuit of Malcolm Turnbull this week and his use of managed investment funds in the Cayman Islands.  Now Doug Cameron has suggested that all Australian super funds with money in areas like the Caymans should pull it out.  Is that something you'd support?

CHALMERS: Look, I think when it comes to superannuation trustees, they make their decision on behalf of the members.  The very stark difference between what we're talking about with our super funds and what we're talking about with Malcolm Turnbull's investments is he chose the Cayman Islands for a fund where the minimum entry is a million dollars.  That was his decision. When it comes to compulsory super, we make our contributions and the funds make their investment decisions. So there's a world of difference.  I haven't seen the detail of what Doug is proposing.

JENNETT: There are Labor people including Bill Shorten who have at various time been directors of these funds and may or may not, in that capacity, have been responsible for endorsing those offshore investments?

CHALMERS: Well, I haven't seen any evidence of that so far.  But I think it remains the case that what we've got with Malcolm Turnbull is someone who a lot of people in the community regard as out of touch.  One of the symbols of him being so out of touch is the fact that he opted to put his money into a Cayman Islands managed investment fund where the price of entry was at least a million dollars, and I don't think that's been sufficiently explained.  I know it's part of the political argy bargy in Canberra at the moment but what he needs to do is explain why he chose that destination and not another destination.

JENNETT: More broadly on his wealth, are we seeing the start of a campaign by Labor to use your words, prove him to be out of touch, but in so doing, to let everyone know that he is quite wealthy?

CHALMERS: I have absolutely no problem with Malcolm Turnbull's wealth. Good on him. To the extent that the wealth has been made legitimately, I say more power to him, and to other high-wealth people in my community, no problem whatsoever.  

My problem with Malcolm Turnbull is he lacks the ability to understand what's going on in middle Australia.  He doesn't have a feel for people who live pay cheque to pay cheque and fortnight to fortnight - the kind of people that I represent proudly.  I think that makes him - it gives him a real disqualification to be an effective Prime Minister,  the fact that he really doesn't walk the same halls as the rest of us.

JENNETT: Jim Chalmers, you will be back for more parliamentary sittings next week, but for that review of this week, thank you.

CHALMERS: Thanks Greg.