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Transcript of interview with Barrie Cassidy: ABC Insiders: 6 September 2015: the unions' campaign against the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA); economy



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MEDIA TRANSCRIPT

MINISTER FOR TRADE AND INVESTMENT

The Hon Andrew Robb AO MP

6 September 2015

ABC - INSIDERS

INTERVIEW WITH BARRIE CASSIDY

Subjects:…the unions’ campaign against the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), the economy.

E&OE…

Barrie Cassidy: Andrew Robb, welcome.

Andrew Robb: Thanks very much, Barrie.

Barrie Cassidy: What's wrong with that as an idea? What's wrong with legislating (labour market testing) to that effect?

Andrew Robb: Well I'm very grateful for Craig. It's not so long ago he had the opportunity to do just that. In fact, Labor brought in all of these labour market testing arrangements and it was Brendan O'Connor, the brother of the CFMEU's national secretary Michael O'Connor, who brought them in. I think they should've known something about the laws they were bringing in. But the problem with the legislation approach is that these 457s are very complicated. In fact, about 84 per cent of all of the 457s coming in are excluded from market testing. Now that was under Labor and we haven't changed one iota of the rules and the legislation that was under Labor; not one iota in terms of this Free Trade Agreement. So that's why I've been saying all along that this is purely a political campaign; it is misrepresenting the substance of the Free Trade Agreement and it is just designed to scare people, and it's really a political exercise to get rid of this Government. This will go on all the way to the next election.

Barrie Cassidy: But still, if you give these guarantees and the testing is mandatory, what is wrong with enshrining that in legislation?

Andrew Robb: Well what Labor is saying is: “You bring in something that is directed at China ...” right, so...

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Barrie Cassidy: They're saying across the board - at least Craig Emerson is - that you apply it to all Free Trade Agreements, not just to China.

Andrew Robb: And to all of 457s coming in? You see, if you look at the substance of labour arrangements and people coming into the country, it's hugely complicated. So what happens to those 84,000 that are currently exempted from labour market testing? Do they get included? This is an area which is designed by Labor to be governed by regulation under overarching legislation. And we're still staying with Labor's arrangements - which they seem to feel worked satisfactorily and have worked satisfactorily under us - and to make that sort of change will be seen by China as directed at them; they're our biggest trading partner and Bill Shorten seems to be in favour of free trade, but not with China.

Barrie Cassidy: It has got the one advantage, though: if you were to do that, the free trade deal would pass the Parliament.

Andrew Robb: Well you say that, but Craig Emerson doesn't speak for the Labor Party; he used to be a minister. I know from what I’ve been told that they’ve got a list as long as your arm of legislation; they want to use this to change so many of the labour arrangements. The CFMEU have got an agenda which they're imposing on Bill Shorten because they control his numbers, they control his funding. They've already spent $12 million - that's nearly half what a party would spend in any campaign - they've spent $12 million already on this totally disingenuous, racist, misleading, misrepresenting campaign, and Bill Shorten is being run around by the nose with this mob. And they're a bunch of thugs and this whole exercise has been captured by the CFMEU as a political exercise; it's the Royal Commission - they're trying to distract from that, they want to get rid of our Government. This is part of the exercise; this will run through to the next election, I guarantee, no matter what happens with this Free Trade Agreement, so don't get distracted. This notion that Craig's come up with will turn into the biggest bugger's muddle you've seen and we'll be expected to change a whole raft of things totally unrelated to the Free Trade Agreement.

Barrie Cassidy: Nevertheless, they might be concerned about - genuinely concerned - about jobs. Is it true, as it stands, that foreign investments over $150 million, in those circumstances, if the investment is over $150 million, Chinese companies won't have to test the market?

Andrew Robb: That's not true. Even Bill Shorten put this on The Drum last night; no matter how much material we give to them, how many briefings we offer them to show them that not one thing has changed...

Barrie Cassidy: But isn't this where the discretion kicks in?

Andrew Robb: No, no, no, no. No, it's not. They are taking a clause which says: if you sign one of these agreements - these facilitation agreements - if you sign that, you don't have to do any market testing at that stage. Because someone's come in and they've said: “I'm going to build a $300 million building.” It's going to take a year or two before that starts to come out of the ground, because they’ve got to get approvals and all the rest. Right at the start they say: “I'll sign this agreement which says, ‘When you get to start to build this thing, and if there's not the labour around, if there's 30 welders - specialist welders - that are not available in Australia, you can bring them in and we'll help you do that quickly’,” but then they have to show labour market testing. Whenever they want to make that operational, they have to go out into the market, and in fact it is compulsory for all levels of the 457. It is very strict; there's a whole raft of other requirements as well; it's very expensive. There is no scope to pay anything less than Australian wages. The only motivation they would have is to get labour that's not currently available in Australia.

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Barrie Cassidy: Is it true that Chinese companies won't have to test the market if they own as little as 15 per cent of a company doing a project in Australia, that's 15 per cent, provided no other non-Chinese company has controlling interests?

Andrew Robb: Not at all; that is not true. It's absolutely false. This is the sort of disingenuous nonsense that's been peddled from day one. The fact is, it doesn't matter how much they own of this project - they've got to own 30 per cent to even have these facilitation agreements apply - but every person who comes in under those agreements, it will have to be demonstrated that they've done labour market testing and there aren't Australians available. And that is clear as crystal in all the material that's gone out; it's Government policy. It was Labor Government policy for the Enterprise Migration Agreement which this IFA is based on; they're very similar things with a different name. They brought in that thing for Gina Rinehart; it had the same requirements that we've put in place for this IFA; they're one and the same thing. I was adamant, because I knew if we changed anything in this industrial area, that we would have a problem. And if I asked once, I asked a hundred times: “what we're doing in this, what we're doing in that; does that change anything in the labour entrants from other countries?” And I was told: no, no, no and that's a fact.

Barrie Cassidy: Well because it raises the prospects of course that Gina Rinehart, who you mentioned of course, could have 49 per cent of a joint venture, go into a joint venture with the Chinese and then bring in workers from China.

Andrew Robb: Well they can bring them in from anywhere now. The biggest number of 457s ever in Australia was under the Labor Government - 127,000. It's back at about 100,000 now; 84,000 of those are not required, were not required, will not be required to have labour market testing. That was a rule under Labor; that was the legislation that Craig Emerson put his hand up for, under the Labor Government. Now they're trying to disingenuously misrepresent words that are in this Free Trade Agreement; every person who comes in under any of those IFAs - like their Enterprise Migration Agreement - will have to demonstrate labour market testing, full stop.

Barrie Cassidy: When Chinese workers come in and it's organised through a state-owned employment company from China - presumably they pay them in yuan and then the money is deposited into their domestic bank accounts - how can you keep an eye on what level of income they're being paid?

Andrew Robb: Well, what about at the moment a Chinese businessman can come in, invest in Australia and bring in workers from anywhere else in the world; 160 other countries. I don't know how they're paid, but I do know that they have to demonstrate - and there are officers that go around and check - that these people are being paid Australian-level wages; that the cost to the company per person is Australian-level wages. Now I don't know what currency they're paid in, but there's things called exchange rates, which is not that difficult to convert.

Barrie Cassidy: Before I get on to the economy, on Syria, are you inclined to think perhaps the country should be taking in more Syrian refugees beyond the 4,400 figure that the Prime Minister refers to from last year?

Andrew Robb: Well we took in 4,400, with I think there were 1,000 especially for women who were in very vulnerable positions. That's been under review; we hadn't made a final decision. But I would suspect that given the circumstances, we'll look very favourably at that, and I personally think I will support that, absolutely; and we should, we should. But the thing is, people have got to...

Barrie Cassidy: Why do you say we should?

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Andrew Robb: Because we've had a reputation as a country for over 60 years; one of only three countries in the world that, in an uninterrupted sense, has brought in a significant number of refugees. Secondly, we bring in, per person, the highest number of refugees in the world of any country. And thirdly, we're the third biggest in-taker of refugees, irrespective of the size of country. So we've always been - both sides of politics - we have recognised that we are blessed as a country, and that we need to do what we can do, and to be the - per person - to have the greatest number year on year on year, is testimony to the fact that both sides of politics have accepted that and so we should.

Barrie Cassidy: On the economy, two years on, can you name one economic indicator, one area where you're doing better than the previous government?

Andrew Robb: Absolutely. We've created - the economy has created with our assistance - 336,000 new jobs...

Barrie Cassidy: You're going to unemployment?

Andrew Robb: No, I'm just saying to you, hang on Barrie; just give me a chance to explain. The economy was blessed for 15 years with the mining boom; mining booms, prices go up and prices come down, it's finished. Both sides of politics knew that, it was captured in the forward estimates of our opponents when we got to office. So we had a problem; we've got to transition to other things that we're good at. Now, those 336,000 jobs are not mining jobs; they're new jobs in areas like tourism and hospitality and financial services, education, health - other areas we're good at. We are creating four times as many new jobs as the last year of Labor.

Barrie Cassidy: But I asked you to give an economic indicator that has improved.

Andrew Robb: Well that's an indicator; new jobs.

Barrie Cassidy: Unemployment was 5.7 per cent. It's now 6.3. That's not an improvement.

Andrew Robb: You see, it's statistics and statistics.

Barrie Cassidy: Yes. And this is a key one.

Andrew Robb: Well, the participation rate of women has never been higher. The participation rate, if it was the same as it was under Labor, our unemployment rate would be 5.8. What the high participation rate shows, is there is confidence. People feel they will get a job, so they're out there trying to get a job. Previously, they would not even be registered. Four years ago, three years ago, they would not even be registered. Now they're registering to get a job, so the participation rate is much higher than it was under Labor, and if you allow for that, the unemployment rate is at 5.8. Now, people said this economy's going to absolutely...

Barrie Cassidy: That's still worse than it was.

Andrew Robb: They said it would be smashed if we faced the downturn in prices of mining, but the fact is that no one expected the downturn that has occurred - $160 a tonne of iron ore, down to $40 - but notwithstanding that, we are still keeping a lid on unemployment going through the roof. We still have one of the highest growth rates in the developed world. And this is notwithstanding the fact that we have been smashed with low prices for iron ore and gas.

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Barrie Cassidy: Alright in the time available, I want to go to a story in the Financial Review that suggested you were sounded out for the job of ambassador to the United States. Is that right?

Andrew Robb: It's not true. But even if I was, I wouldn't be interested.

Barrie Cassidy: And why would that be?

Andrew Robb: Because I'm enjoying what I'm doing.

Barrie Cassidy: One report suggested a colleague was quoted as saying that you, that Andrew Robb doesn't want to get out of bed at midnight to meet Kevin Rudd at an airport. Was that part of your thinking?

Andrew Robb: Well, I'd agree with that statement as well, yes.

Barrie Cassidy: But clearly, you want to remain in politics and continue to do what you're doing?

Andrew Robb: Yes. And whenever my time's up, I'll go into the private sector. I think that's the next best place I'd apply my skills.

Barrie Cassidy: And if there is a reshuffle in December, do you think that's when your time will be up? Do you think that reshuffle would impact on you?

Andrew Robb: No, I’ve got a lot to do yet. I'm that close to something with India; there's still a fair bit of work to do, and I've got to get this China one through. These are a fundamental part of our plan for the economy. These three Free Trade Agreements (with Asia) and more, were designed as key planks to help us transition from a resource-based economy to something else. The deal with China, the special part about it is: okay, it's very good for agriculture, but the services are spectacular. The opportunity for us in health, in tourism, in hospitality, in water management, in financial services; the whole gamut, the opportunities for tens of thousands of jobs in the years ahead, are just phenomenal, because the deal they've done for us in China, they've given no one else in the world. We've got the opportunity to really nail that relationship and build a very strong economy off the back of it; a wide services-based economy.

Barrie Cassidy: Okay, you're staying.

Andrew Robb: Good on you.

Barrie Cassidy: Thanks for your time this morning.

Andrew Robb: Thanks very much, Barrie.

Ends