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Transcript of interview with Hamish MacDonald: Radio National Breakfast: 22 October 2019: Labor's support for trade agreements with Indonesia; Hong Kong and Peru; worker exploitation; Australians trapped in Syria

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SUBJECT: Labor’s support for trade agreements with Indonesia, Hong Kong and Peru; worker exploitation; Australians trapped in Syria

HAMISH MACDONALD: A rift is emerging between the union movement and Federal Labor over support for the government's free trade agreements with Indonesia, Hong Kong and Peru. The Australian Council of Trade Unions, the ACTU, says the deals should never have been signed.


That's ACTU President Michelle O'Neill speaking to me a short time ago here on Breakfast. Madeleine King is the shadow trade minister. Welcome to Breakfast.


MACDONALD: The unions are angry, the opposition leader Anthony Albanese himself says Labor wouldn't have made this sort of agreement if it was in power. Why then support them?

KING: Well, it's important to recognise the overall economic benefit, but more so than the economic benefit is the matter of a strategic benefit of a closer relationship with the Republic of Indonesia. I listened to Michele's interviews before and she's quite right to point out that there hasn't been contemporary economic modelling of this agreement. But there has been economic modelling in the past, under a Labor government actually, that started negotiations for this agreement. And that demonstrated that there would be significant economic benefit for the country.

MACDONALD: But Anthony Albanese is saying this is not a deal that Labor would have signed. Given that you are effectively supporting them, I mean, it does seem a little difficult to understand exactly what you think about the trade deals.

KING: Anthony's right to say that if we had been in government from the time when this negotiation started, which Labor did start up, until when it was closed, it would undoubtedly be a different agreement. But that's the nature of trade agreements, they do take time because they involve international interests and cross-border treaty-making processes. That means they regularly go across different terms of governments. So we are presented with a treaty that can only be agreed by the executive of government and Labor in opposition has to deal with that practically and pragmatically. And in so doing, we have got a number of concessions from the government, and confirmation from the government, which I believe improve the overall position of not only these treaties, but the treaty-making process will be looked at into the future. And I think that's a really positive outcome.

MACDONALD: Notwithstanding the fact that you say there was some initial modelling done when these some of these agreements were first mooted, do you have any contemporary evidence to support this argument that your side of politics is putting that this is going to create jobs?

KING: We have the evidence that companies knowing they will be undertaking further trade with Indonesia have put forward to the treaties committee, and that's really important evidence. BlueScope steel, for instance, have pointed to the fact that increasing the permit system to allow them to put 250,000 tons of hot and cold rolled coil into the Indonesian market as they build a new capital but also before that as they build a new airport terminal, that will greatly improve their industry and their ability to provide more jobs at the Port Kembla steelworks. So we have individual significant businesses and industries in Australia all calling for this agreement and Labor in opposition cannot ignore and will not ignore their evidence as they presented to the committees.

MACDONALD: There are already I think 1.4 million foreign workers on temporary visas in this country. And that puts pressure on wages and some individuals have been exposed to exploitation. Will these deals in your view, particularly the one with Indonesia, add to those numbers and those pressures?

KING: It is entirely reasonable of the ACTU and many others to point out the issues of an increasing temporary workforce. And I have to acknowledge the work of union groups and union reps that are the people on the front line that find exploited workers houses in crowded, unsanitary inhumane conditions

around this country, and this kind of worker exploitation has to stop. I am glad that the government has, although lately, come to the table and agreed to bring forward criminal penalties, higher criminal penalties, for those that do exploit foreign workers. To put this into context, at the moment there are about 1000 Indonesian holiday visa holders here in Australia. And that's up from a low of about 200 three years ago. These temporary working holiday visa makers are an important part of building people-to-people and better cultural understanding between our two nations. So it will rise from 1000 now over the next five and a half years to a potential of 5000 young Indonesians working in Australia. And if all of those 5000 applications were taken up, it would account for 2.3 per cent of the overall temporary workforce. So that does potentially increase the numbers, of course it does. But can I just finish sorry. It is important that that temporary workforce is protected and isn't exploited, and I think that is the main issue we have to keep our eye on in this country.

MACDONALD: But the unions are pointing to the impact that that has on workers here, having more foreign workers in the country on these temporary visas. It sounds like you acknowledge that as a problem?

KING: Well, I acknowledge that under this agreement, there is capacity for more young Indonesians to travel and to work in Australia on a temporary holiday maker visa. That may happen. What we know is that Indonesians don't take up those visas as much as we might think they would like to. Whilst we have about 1000 here now, we also in this last year had 38,000 British holiday makers here on those same visas. So we need to keep this increase in context and be very aware that what it does bring is young Indonesians to the country to experience Australia, to work in different environments, meet more Australians so we do have that cross-cultural understanding.

MACDONAL: Do you think you're just trying to put a pretty positive spin on what is quite a real problem?

KING: The real problem is worker exploitation and I entirely accept that and I entirely accept that that is a problem. I think the fact that we do have many, many temporary migrants to this country that have no potential pathway to permanency is a very grave problem. There is a risk of creating a migrant underclass in this country. And I think we need to hold the government to account on that and make sure they press to make sure that that temporary workforce, whether it's these holiday makers, which generally do go back to their country of origin, but any other temporary stays in Australia do have a pathway to permanency.

MACDONALD: Finally Madeleine King, you will have heard it most likely overnight. The reporting of these comments made by Mike Pezzullo, the home

affairs secretary, in Senate estimates, he said that it is too high a risk to bring home these Australian women and their families trapped in the fighting in Syria in the camps. Is Labor satisfied with his explanation as to why they're not being brought back to Australia and that no attempt is being made to extract them?

KING: I think this is a desperately grave situation that's happening in these camps. And like all Australians, we have extraordinary sympathy for the young children that are caught up in this, through clearly no fault of their own. I'm sure the Senators and Senate Estimates will keep pressing on this decision, but I do know that the government has a full toolkit available to them to deal with people that return.

MACDONALD: I’m not sure this answers the question I put to you though. Are you satisfied with his explanation?

KING: We will be looking further into this matter. It is a very difficult decision for the government what has been put to them, and I accept that and I accept it's a grave decision to have to think about and consider putting other Australians’ lives in peril to go into a very dangerous situation in foreign lands. So we will examine it further.

MACDONALD: Madeleine King. Thank you very much.

KING: Thank you very much, Hamish.