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Wednesday, 21 October 2015
Page: 11975


Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (Gorton) (13:06): I rise to support the Customs Amendment (China-Australia Free Trade Agreement Implementation) Bill 2015, and I do so for two reasons. One reason is that the amendments to the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement sought by the opposition and conceded by the government have made this a better arrangement—not a perfect one by any means; there are still many deficiencies. But I support it because the government made concessions on some very significant issues that protect the interests of workers in this country—safeguards for employment conditions and security of employment—and that is something that would not have happened without Labor standing up in defence of Australian workers. That is one of the reasons I support the bill.

The other reason I support this bill is that the Leader of the Opposition has foreshadowed attending to other matters that are not specifically related to the China free trade agreement but incidental to it, in so far as they go to the exploitation of workers, both foreign and domestic, in our labour market. The fact is that we have seen some awful, scandalous forms of exploitation in this country that we need to address, with the growing number of temporary visas being issued by the government. Some argue that there are 800,000; others would say there are actually a million temporary workers in this country. It is absolutely vital that sufficient powers and resources are deployed to respond to this existing problem. If elected, Labor will attend to those matters, because we know the government's heart is not in dealing with such regulations.

I think it is always important to remember history, in life as in politics, particularly recent history, because the trade minister, in defence of this agreement when it came to labour mobility, invoked the safeguards in the 457 visa legislation—the labour market testing that is currently in place. I draw the attention of the House to the contributions by the former shadow immigration minister and current Treasurer to the debate in June 2013 in relation to introducing labour market testing in this country. Let us be very, very clear here about the government's views on labour market testing, because they are on the record and they have never been repudiated by this government.

During the last term of the previous Labor government, in the last week of the parliament, in the last piece of legislation in fact enacted by the parliament, we sought to bring in some safeguards for workers in this country and we were attacked by the then opposition—by the then shadow minister for immigration and indeed every member of the then opposition that now sits on the government benches—because we introduced legislation that went to labour market testing. Indeed, it is that same piece of legislation that the minister for trade has been using as a defence for the safeguards that are in place now. Why should we not question the sincerity of the government when they relentlessly attacked Labor's intentions to bring in safeguards for the Australian workforce and for those overseas workers who are exploited.

So I do not believe the Australian government's heart has ever been in defending Australian working conditions, in ensuring quality jobs or in defending exploited overseas workers. And you see it today. In fact, they have watered down the regulations of that legislation in relation to the indexing of wages under the 457 visa, something they refused to accede to in the negotiations that occurred between the trade minister and the shadow minister for trade.

Of course it is good that concessions have been made by the government, and they were concessions that should have been made. But they were not made out of the kindness of the government's heart or because the government wanted to accede to the matters put to it by the opposition. I think it is because the government understood that they dropped the ball on this issue. They turned their backs on this matter, or they had little regard or inclination to deal with these matters, when negotiating with the Chinese government, so we had to improve this agreement. And it has been improved as a result, but there is more to be done and, if elected, we will do it.

We will ensure there are greater safeguards for Australian workers in relation to the way in which temporary visas are used. Whether they are 400, 417 or 457 visas, greater attention needs to be paid to the enforceability of the provisions that are in place. There need to be better resources for regulators, including for the Fair Work Ombudsman, which needs to have sufficient capabilities and powers to deploy in a way that prevents unnecessary exploitation in this country. We will attend to those things.

Whilst a great deal of bonhomie has broken out today and everyone is gushing with mutual praise, it is important that exaggerated claims are not made. The Minister for Employment, Senator Cash, is guilty of that. She has claimed that the three free trade agreements—not just this one but also the free trade agreements with Japan and Korea—will create 178,000 jobs by 2035. That figure has been utterly discredited by independent economists, and she has had to retract those assertions she made in the other place, and I would counsel her not to repeat them. That is not to say that there are not benefits; there are. But you should not pretend that something will happen when it may not. You should not unfairly exaggerate or distort the outcomes of signing such an agreement.

The government seems to believe somehow that secret negotiation with another nation, ultimately disclosed to the public over time—including the text, which took six months to write—should have just been waved through by the opposition. Somehow, we were just supposed to sit here and let Andrew Robb negotiate everything in secret, with the text coming out four or five months later, some of which is very ambiguous. We were supposed to just say, 'Magnificent work. It's fantastic for everybody. Everyone's a winner. We'll sign up to this agreement.' The opposition refused to do that. We refused to do that because we wanted to look after the constituency that was neglected in those negotiations, namely 11 million Australian workers who are concerned about their jobs, concerned about security of employment and concerned about where the jobs of the future are going to be.

Whilst we accept absolutely that there are jobs now and jobs in the future to be created as a result of our ongoing relationship with China, it is not fair to say that proper attention had been paid to these matters. They had not been properly attended to and we have had to insist that they were attended to, and in some part they have been. But just be very careful of the imaginary job figure that the Minister for Employment, Senator Cash, continues to cite, because it is contrary to all independent advice. This agreement is better as a result of the opposition's intervention and the acceding by the government to those provisions. But it is important that when we sign up to bilateral agreements or, for that matter, multilateral agreements with other countries, we do not take at face value the government's assertions—and that is whether it is a Labor government or a conservative government—that it is a good agreement.

It is absolutely proper that the parliament examine the benefits or otherwise of such agreements. That is why we have a standing committee that is supposed to report to the parliament on such agreements. We almost had a situation this week where this debate was going to start before the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties was to report on the agreement—which would have been unconventional, to say the very least. The supremacy of this parliament must remain when we are dealing with such matters. The parliament has every right to examine these agreements and, to that extent, it is another achievement of the outcome from today. The parliament has had an involvement in this agreement, and I would have to say that it is better than agreements in the past. This is because of the leadership shown by Labor, the Leader of the Opposition, the advocacy of the shadow minister for trade, Senator Wong and, indeed, the Labor team in standing up for workers in this country.

We support this bill. We have always believed in the benefits from the relationship between the two countries—China and Australia. We have never needed to be given any lectures by those opposite on the importance of China. As the Leader of the Opposition has said, it was a Labor leader in opposition and, ultimately, in government that recognised modern China. We started diplomatic ties with that country. All the work undertaken during the Hawke-Keating and Rudd-Gillard years shows our complete focus on the need to engage fully with our own region and on the benefits from it culturally and economically and, of course, in other ways. I think that can happen. But it was absolutely right and vital that we stood our ground and advocated for many people who I do not believe were to be winners of this agreement if it had been passed without amendment. I think the concessions made by government are indeed improvements. But there is another issue beyond the trade agreement, and I think that it is incidental insofar as public policy goes, and that is dealing with job security and with the abuse, the exploitation, that does occur to overseas workers and domestic workers and the need to make sure that we have proper capacity as a federal government to deploy powers and resources in order to prevent such exploitation from occurring in the future. We make no apology for standing up for Australian workers. That is what the Labor Party always does and always will do. As a result of that, we have a better agreement, and I support the bill.