China Australia Free Trade Agreement

19 August 2015

SUBJECT/S: China-Australia FTA 


There are revelations this morning that the Government intends to spend multiple millions of dollars of taxpayer money to promote the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Advertising won’t fix the fact that in this agreement, it makes it harder to fill Australian jobs with Australian workers. If the Government was serious about enlisting the support of the community for the China Free Trade Agreement, they would fix those parts of the deal that disadvantage Australian workers.

From our side of the Parliament, we’re up for a proper deal with China. We’re up for Asian engagement – we’re the party of Asian engagement, we’re the party of engagement with China in particular. But we want to make sure it’s a good deal. We want to make sure it’s the kind of deal that maximises Australian jobs and minimises the risks of exploitation in the Australian labour market. That’s why we will seek to fix – to improve – those parts of the deal which deal with labour market testing for example, and skills assessment. We think that’s an important issue. If the Government was serious about the community supporting the China Free Trade Agreement, they wouldn’t spend millions of dollars on taxpayer-funded ads, they would fix those parts of the deal which disadvantage Australian workers.

JOURNALIST: How are you going to do that? By what mechanism?

CHALMERS: The enabling legislation hasn’t been presented to the Parliament yet on the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. When that happens, we will have that conversation then. We have made our position very clear. We’re up for a high-quality China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. We’re not up for a dud deal. We want one that maximises Australian jobs and minimises exploitation. And when we get the opportunity to improve it, we will take that opportunity but we’ve got to see the legislation first.

JOURNALIST: But the deal has already been done with China, so are you going to jeopardise that deal by not passing it all?

CHALMERS: We’ve said all along – whether it’s Bill Shorten or Penny Wong, all through our side of the show – we’ve said that we want to improve the deal. We want to make it better for Australian workers. We need to see the legislation to work out the best ways for that to happen. But we’ve had a consistent position all along. We’re up for a proper conversation. We want to protect Australian jobs.

JOURNALIST: Is there a danger that this union campaign could endanger Australia’s relationship with its biggest trading partner?

CHALMERS: Not at all. I mean the difference between what the Government proposes to do is to spend taxpayer money on an advertising campaign. What the unions are doing is a matter for them using the money that they raise from members. That’s an entirely appropriate use of their funds. They’ve got a strong view on these issues as they should have.

There’s a broader issue at play here. The Government is desperate to pretend that they care about jobs all of a sudden. They’re desperate to talk about changing the EPBC Act. I see today in the press that not even Phillip Ruddock supports changes to the EPBC Act. So you’ve got this bizarre situation where John Howard – he’s the author of these laws – and Philip Ruddock have a much more modern, evolved, progressive view of environmental protection in this country than Tony Abbott does. It is another indication of how backward-looking he is. They are desperate to distract from the Cabinet in-fighting, the fact that Cabinet doesn’t have an agenda, that Cabinet meetings have been cancelled, that the Cabinet has ceased to operate as an effective institution in this country. They’re desperate to distract from broken promises and all the problems, the chaos and confusion that they have on their side of the Parliament.

If they want to talk about jobs, let’s have a conversation about jobs. That conversation begins with facts. The fact is that the unemployment rate today is higher than at any point during the Global Financial Crisis. It’s higher than when the Government changed hands two years ago. We’ve got more than 800,000 Australians unemployed in this country for the first time in more than two decades. So if they want to talk about jobs, they should begin with those facts. One of the unfortunate consequences of Cabinet ceasing to operate as an effective institution in this country is that the big challenges in the labour market are being left unaddressed.

JOURNALIST: Just to be clear, you’re not actually threatening to block the ChAFTA legislation, are you?

CHALMERS: I’m talking today about the advertising campaign. Our views on the legislation itself will be formed by the legislation when it’s presented. We’ve made it very clear that we want to support a China Free Trade Agreement, but we want it to be a good deal for Australian workers. We think that means improving key aspects of the deal, including labour market testing and skills assessments. But we support engagement with China. We support freer trade in our region. We want to support the China Free Trade Agreement, but we want it improved as well.

JOURNALIST: The deal has reviews built in every two years though, so can’t you just use that mechanism? That’s what it’s for isn’t it?

CHALMERS: I don’t think the review mechanisms do enough to address the concerns we have that the deal makes it less likely that Australian jobs will be filled by Australian workers. The review mechanism is insufficient on that front. We’ll have a series of proposals when the time comes on how to improve that deal so that it doesn’t disadvantage Australian workers like the current deal does.

Thanks very much.