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Wednesday, 21 October 2015
Page: 11963

Ms PLIBERSEK (SydneyDeputy Leader of the Opposition) (12:15): I rise to speak on the Customs Amendment (China-Australia Free Trade Agreement Implementation) Bill 2015 and related bill. Labor have always been a supporter of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. We worked hard to progress it while we were in government and we are pleased to see it come to fruition now. The Leader of the Opposition spoke about the relationship with China that our Prime Minister Gough Whitlam first established when he established diplomatic relations between Australia and China and became the first Prime Minister to visit China in 1973. When our relationship with China began to do develop, the Chinese economy was smaller than that of the Netherlands. Today, China's GDP approaches and is likely to outstrip that of the United States. On some measures of economic size, China is already the largest economy in the world.

China's economic growth brings tremendous opportunities to Australia. We have seen those opportunities bring enormous economic benefits in our resources sector but they are not limited to our resources sector. This is why, when Labor was last in government, we produced the Australia in the Asian Century white paper. We made sure that the changing dynamics and the emerging opportunities of the region were included in every area of government decision making. We understood that, as China's economy grows, our returns will not depend as much on the resources sector but will be dependent on areas like services as well.

In recent years, China has lifted 600 million of its own citizens out of poverty. And President Xi Jinping has spoken at some length of the China dream—his view that living standards for all Chinese should increase over the coming years. This obviously brings new opportunities for Australia. There will be opportunities to produce new goods, new services and opportunities to export those to an increasingly prosperous China. There will be opportunities as well to provide the services that will be in demand in China. Whether in education, financial services, hospitality and tourism, legal services or in aged care, as the Chinese population ages, the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement will open up new opportunities for Australians.

Of course we are happy to support the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement but I have to say that this is not exactly the agreement that we would have signed had we been in government. The Leader of the Opposition has covered in some detail some of the shortcomings and limitations that we see in this agreement. I want to focus on one in particular. I want to focus on the inclusion of an investor-state dispute settlement clause, which is something that we would not have agreed to had we been the negotiators of this agreement. As the Leader of the Opposition has said, we have adopted a policy of not signing trade agreements with investor state dispute settlement clauses. We adopted that policy in government and we would have continued it had we still been in government. We oppose them now because we believe that they are not in Australia's best interests and we will seek to review investor state dispute settlement mechanisms that exist when we return to government.

ISDS clauses have been the subject of some concern in our community and for a range of experts right across the political spectrum. Whatever the argument in favour of ISDS clauses when they were first conceived, I think it is incontrovertible to say that they are now open to abuse and have been abused. I was the Minister for Health when the claim was brought against Australia by Philip Morris, the tobacco company. I think that this particular claim is a great demonstration of the perniciousness of these investor state dispute settlement clauses. I was the first minister to have to find millions of dollars, in fact tens of millions of dollars, to mount a legal defence against what we believed when were in government—what I am still convinced of—to be an excellent public health measure in tobacco plain packaging that has successfully resulted in fewer Australian smoking and, in the future, fewer Australian dying from tobacco related courses. This claim was a cynical attempt by big tobacco to overturn our cigarette plain packaging laws. Those laws were properly considered by this parliament, they were debated extensively in the Australian community and they were introduced to protect the health of Australians.

These laws for plain packaging are now under attack by a Hong Kong subsidiary of Philip Morris. Its claim, of course, is that plain packaging laws breach the investment protections in the Australia-Hong Kong Bilateral Investment Treaty. Of course Philip Morris is not based in Hong Kong. It is a company that was founded in the United States and is now headquartered in Switzerland. Its use of the Australia-Hong Kong Bilateral Investment Treaty is global forum shopping at its very lowest. In fact, Philip Morris changed is corporate arrangements deliberately to exploit the ISDS provisions in the Hong Kong agreement and to sue Australia. This is a completely unprincipled attack on the Australian parliament's power and duty to make laws to protect the health and safety of its citizens. This company, as all tobacco companies do, makes its packaging attractive, particularly attractive to teenagers and to children, in an effort to get more people smoking because many of its existing customers keep dying. No matter how baseless such a legal action might be—and of course Australia is very confident that we will be successful in this legal action—it still ties up thousands of hours of departmental time for our public servants. It forces the government to pay for a legal team, in this case a pretty expensive legal team, to prepare a defence. Tens of millions of dollars get sucked out of our national budget because of the exploitation of big tobacco of this ISDS clause.

Sadly, of course this legal matter does not just have a chilling impact on Australia; it means that smaller countries that want to introduce similar provisions to plain packaging are worried about being dragged into similar court processes and are prevented from doing it. I cannot tell you how many conversations I had with health ministers from other countries saying, 'Well, we're just kind of hanging back to see how the investor-state dispute settlement business goes in Hong Kong before we do what we know is in the interests of our citizens.'

So, as I say, we were disappointed to see an ISDS clause in this agreement. However, as we have always said, we completely recognise the importance of trade to Australia's economy, and we recognise that greater trade with one of the fastest growing economies in our region is going to be good for Australia. In the aspect of the investor-state dispute settlement clause, we would not have signed up with it. We also—as the Leader of the Opposition said, in much greater detail than I will—do have some concerns about some of the labour market provisions in this agreement.

I will leave you with just a very quick precis of those concerns. They are concerns that are not just concerns of the Australian Labor Party. They are concerns widely shared across the community. And I have to say it is no wonder that there is some scepticism and some feeling of disquiet amongst Australians when they look at the job destruction in the car industry under this government and the thousands of jobs lost, when they look at the government reopening loopholes in the 457 visa regime that Labor had closed, and when they look at employers bringing in more overseas workers on 457 visas than they told the government they wanted to employ in the first instance. Again, in my own area of health, we saw a lot of excellent, caring, wonderful nurses coming into Australia on temporary visas, when we graduate thousands of nursing students in Australia every year. But the state governments do not want to invest in their training years in public hospitals.

So it is no wonder that there are concerns in the Australian community about some of these labour market provisions, and our concerns were, I think fairly, grouped in three main areas. We wanted to see labour market testing for work agreements, including investment facilitation arrangements; we wanted to see—and this is very important, Mr Deputy Speaker Broadbent, and I know you know it is, as a member very much in touch with his electorate—safeguards to stop Australian wages being undercut and to stop overseas workers being exploited; and, thirdly, we wanted to see the strengthening of visa conditions for overseas workers in licenced occupations, to make sure that the quality of work continues to be high.

As the Leader of the Opposition has detailed, the safeguards that the government has agreed to address these concerns. I am delighted to say that the government has been willing to work with the Leader of the Opposition and with our shadow trade minister, Senator Wong, on addressing some of our concerns.

The outcome is that this agreement will provide greater opportunities for Australians without undermining their employment, their wages or their safety. We are pleased that the government has been reasonable on negotiating on the areas of our greatest concern. With these safeguards, we believe that this free trade agreement will be in the interests of Australia and Australians. These sensible protections for Australian jobs and for overseas workers who are brought to Australia, and in the area of workplace safety, owe a great deal to a wonderful trade union campaign which drew attention to the flaws in the agreement as it was initially proposed. They also owe a great deal to the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition and to the patience and determination of our shadow minister for trade and investment, Senator Penny Wong.