Labor stands up for local workers

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The Hon Michael Danby MP

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has suddenly become enamoured with ex-Foreign Minister Bob Carr, one of Julia Gillard’s most troublesome imports into the last Labor administration.

Abbott repeatedly lauded Carr’s support for the Liberal Party’s China–Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), during the last week of Parliament. So has Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in numerous media appearances since the parliamentary adjournment.

Day after day, during the last week of Parliament, Abbott cooed about the “Honourable Professor” Bob Carr and Carr’s support for ChAFTA. Carr has long supported a pro-Chinese government position, ever since he held the China portfolio at Macquarie Bank. This was before Prime Minister Gillard, as she now admits mistakenly, brought him out of obscurity. He had to take down evidence of pro-Chinese Government bent from his blog, including his infamous attack on the Dalai Lama, whom he denigrated as a “cunning monk”.

The “Honourable, Professor” supports even the controversial discretionary labour market annexures to the China FTA. But he would, wouldn’t he? Carr’s support for the FTA is utterly predictable given that he runs the Australia–China Relations Institute (ACRI), an institute funded by business men, some of whom are based in China and all of whom have a business relationship or ideological devotion to the current Chinese regime. During Question Time, I interjected repeatedly that Carr’s endorsement of the Government’s assurances about skills testing and the Labour market could be considered as “cash for comment”. ACRI is largely funded by members of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC), of which Carr is also a patron. The ACPPRC is one of several ‘united front’ organisations that operate around the world and are organised by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Essentially, the ACPPRC promotes the People’s Republic of China’s global message, and Carr’s ACRI has followed suite ever since its establishment.

If one were to turn to Labor’s actual record on free trade and rational economics, rather than the Abbott Government’s mischaracterisations, we are the party of economic reform, of Hawke and Keating. Labor has supported all previous free trade agreements with the US, Korea and Thailand. Yet the entire spectrum of Labor opinion says there are legitimate concerns about ChAFTA. Trade Minister Andrew Robb’s side letter and excision of skill trades for large Chinese investments over $150 million form a part of the FTA and are unlike any previous FTA.

Bob Carr’s pro-Beijing blandishments are par for the course. Less reflexively pro-Chinese Government commentators, such as The Australian Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan, have also misrepresented the purpose of Labor’s questioning against aspects of the China. Sheridan and other vociferous advocates of ChAFTA claim the unions are xenophobic, saying that Chinese labour will flood the market. Bill Shorten and the Opposition have been careful to keep criticism to the labour market implications of the FTA, and Chinese investment in Australia is obviously as welcome as from all other countries. Further, Labor does not want to scrap the FTA, but merely ensure Australian workers’ interests are adequately protected by specifying that Australian skilled workers will not be excluded from large Chinese projects in Australia.

Labor and union concerns centre on two issues: First, that the FTA (unlike other FTAs) will allow Chinese companies, many of whom are state owned, to legally sidestep the need to hire Australian workers. This fear arises because the FTA and an associated MOU make clear that chafta-side-letter-on-skills-assessment-and-licensing for projects over $150 million. For the uninitiated, labour market testing means a company has to test whether an Australian could do a job before a foreigner is offered a temporary visa. Carr, Sheridan and the Government have all poo-pooed this criticism but, as the ABC’s Fact Check found, the Opposition’s claim checks out; “The agreement allows the Immigration Department to decide that jobs should be offered to local workers before it issues visas to overseas workers, but it does not require this to happen”.

Second, Labor is concerned because Trade Minister Robb waived the skills requirements of temporary work visas (‘457 visas’) for 10 occupations in a side letter to China’s trade minister. This makes it easier to bring in foreign workers for those occupations, which further undermines opportunities for Australian workers.

Labor reflects strong public concerns about these aspects of the FTA. For instance under ChAFTA if a Chinese firm were to build an 80-storey hotel in Melbourne worth over $150 million, could the Chinese company bring over an entirely Chinese workforce? The answer is unambiguously ‘yes’. This would not be possible in any other FTA and this is not something the Australian people will support.

China is already Australia’s largest trading partner. Bipartisan support for trade and good relations with China are too important to get wrong. The Opposition has indicated that it is willing to work with the Government to fix ChAFTA to ensure a beneficial outcome for Australians. After all, the Opposition’s support in the Senate is vital. Labor would be equally critical of a free trade agreement with any country that undermines local jobs, not just an agreement with China.

 

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