Bill's Transcripts

Press Conference: Canberra - China-Australia Free Trade Agreement; Question Time changes

E&OE TRANSCRIPT

PRESS CONFERENCE

CANBERRA

WEDNESDAY, 21 OCTOBER 2015

 

SUBJECT/S: China-Australia Free Trade Agreement; Question Time changes; Malcolm Turnbull’s cuts to Family Tax Benefits; Joe Hockey

 

BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Good morning everyone, thanks for joining us. Today is the first anniversary since the passing of Gough Whitlam. I mention that because Gough Whitlam was the first modern Australian leader to reach out and engage with China, and Labor's very proud of his legacy and we honour it. That is why Labor when it comes to the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement has always supported the potential of the agreement to benefit Australians. But in supporting trade liberalisation and the benefits it brings, Labor's always believed that trade should benefit all Australians, not just some people. That's why Labor has stood up and expressed our concerns that there was insufficient legal safeguards and protections for Australian jobs, for Australian wages and conditions, for Australian skills and occupational licensing.

 

So I am pleased today to announce that through the hard work of Penny Wong, working with Minister Andrew Robb, that Labor now has achieved what we believe to be satisfactory legal protections which weren't previously proposed, which means that Labor can now support the speedy passage of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Today is indeed a good day. Labor has done today what Labor has always done; support Australian jobs, protect Australian wages and conditions, make sure that Australians, all Australians share in the benefits of change and progress. Now, in the specific changes, I will ask Penny to go through them in a moment, but in the course of the last couple of days there has been constructive dialogue between the Government and Labor. Last night and this morning there's been plenty of consultation and discussion within the Labor ranks. I acknowledge today that without the community and union support for improving safeguards the outcome today wouldn't have been possible. I also recognise that going forward, what Labor's secured will see greater legal protection and regulation for labour market testing, greater investigation and making sure that Australian wages and conditions, market rates including enterprise agreements are looked at to provide the benchmark for the payment of temporary guest workers and also a strengthening of the requirement around occupational licensing.

 

It is a good day today because Labor, I believe, has secured, through constructive negotiation, through community concern, and through good dialogue and sensible proposals greater protections for Australian jobs. I'd like Penny Wong to talk further about the detail of what we've secured.

 

PENNY WONG, SHADOW MINISTER FOR TRADE AND INVESTMENT: Thanks very much Bill. Well as Bill said, Labor has secured a comprehensive package of safeguards for Australian jobs. These safeguards extend well beyond the China Free Trade Agreement and are complementary to that agreement. Now, we argued previously, consistently, for safeguards in three specific areas. We wanted a requirement in relation to labour market testing, we wanted to protect Australian wages and conditions and we wanted to uphold workplace skills and standards, and the package that we have agreed, with the Government, delivers legal safeguards in these three areas. This is about Australian jobs, it's about a safety net of decent wages and conditions for all workers, and the outcomes we have achieved will be legally binding.
I want to take you through the detail of some of those in brief. First in relation to labour market testing which we said very clearly we want labour market testing in relation to work agreements; that has been achieved. They will be written into migration regulations and this obligation will extend  to all work agreements in the migration system. That includes, of course, the investment facilitation arrangements under the China Free Trade Agreement.
The second thing we wanted to do was to protect Australian wages and conditions, and in fact we've achieved a better outcome on that than the amendments that we originally proposed. What we have achieved there is to ensure that in relation to the market salary rate requirement for standard 457 workers, there will be a requirement that the enterprise agreement rate has to be the reference rate for the purposes of the market salary rate. Now that is an explicit legal commitment, a legal obligation which again will be put into regulation, and the third area we sought outcomes on was in relation to overseas trades workers, where there was an issue with the removal of mandatory skills assessments that had raised concerns in the community.
Now, what we have achieved there is new visa conditions requiring such workers to obtain their occupational licence within 90 days, a prohibition in their visa condition against working without holding the licence, and a requirement to notify the Immigration Department if the licence is refused or revoked and that also will be written into regulations.

 

In addition, the package includes additional transparency requirements through the annual reports from the Immigration Department, a set of new guidelines which set out some of the requirements that we previously talked about, such as the Australian jobs test, training plans, the skills transfer requirements and overseas worker support plans. We have also asked for greater consultation and achieved greater consultation with the ACTU in the government's planned enforcement activities in relation to the exploitation of workers - which as we know has been on display for some time, for example, the 7-Eleven workers and others. So what I would say to you today is that we have achieved a comprehensive package of safeguards for Australian jobs. We've achieved outcomes consistent with the position we have held for some time and consistent with the outcomes we sought when we were last in this room announcing our exposure draft amendments.
I do want to acknowledge the constructive approach that my colleague Andrew Robb has taken to these negotiations, and as Bill said, the achievement of these outcomes will enable speedy passage of the China Free Trade Agreement, but of course, these are outcomes which extend well beyond that agreement. Thank you.

 

SHORTEN: Thanks Penny. Are there questions?

 

JOURNALIST: Senator Wong, would you mind just explaining again number two in your list there, the better outcomes on 457s just perhaps in plain English as distinct from the way you put it a minute ago, which I at least found incomprehensible.

 

WONG: I'm terribly sorry. So this is in relation to the market salary rate. So as I've explained in the previous press conference, there are a number of conditions in relation to 457s that people have to achieve. What we have achieved is a legal obligation that the market salary rate that such an overseas worker has to be paid is calculated by reference to the enterprise agreement that would be applicable. Now, why that is important is that we've had a range of people put to us that, for example, in certain locations, that the award rate or perhaps the industry rate was going to be substantially less than the relevant enterprise agreement rate. So, for example, in the Pilbara and the like, you would have a different rate obviously in that location than you might have in different parts of urban Australia. So the regulation will ensure that the enterprise agreement rate is the market salary rate that is referenced. So that is an additional protection for Australian wages and conditions the economic proposition being, the economic incentive to bring someone in on a lower rate of pay that you would have to pay an Australian worker is removed. And the reason that is important I think is self-evident. It's not an undercutting of Australian wages and conditions, but as importantly this extends across the 457 regime, the standard business model.

 

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, what's the significance in your view of having this in regulation rather than in the actual act? Is it sufficient and secondly, what's your message to unions with campaigns, would you expect them to stop campaigning against CHaFTA now?

 

SHORTEN: Going to the significance, regulations have the force of law. There's been this big debate and you've been covering it diligently in terms of the government said there's no problems with CHAFTA, they said that Labor and the community were scaremongering and there's no problem. We've said well if there's no problem, let's have some legally enforceable grunt behind protecting Australian jobs. I'm pleased that following Labor's persevering and I think community campaigning, that the government has said, alright' well we'll put it into regulations. So this is a ratcheting up of the level of legal protection for Australian jobs. In terms of the unions, there are plenty of people, including some unions, who are not supportive of a China Free Trade Agreement for a range of reasons. Labor's been motivated about the principle. Was there a genuine case that the protections were unsatisfactory or insufficient? We were convinced, Penny and I and the Labor team, that there was a case to be made for improving the legal safeguards. But what we now recognise is that the government has made some movement. Whether or not they think it was necessary, they have. And I acknowledge that. We're doing our job as the Opposition. So we've got a real and demonstrable progress. In terms of what unions do going forward there are other issues out there about temporary guest work which aren’t resolved by today. What we're saying today doesn’t resolve all the issues and I just want to say to Australians I understand there are 800,000 people with temporary work rights in Australia at a time when we have high unemployment. We've all seen the dreadful story of the systemic rorting of 7-Eleven and the conditions of people on visas. Labor doesn't think the job is over about protecting Australian jobs generally and promoting Australian jobs. We don't think the job is over in terms of stopping the exploitation of guest workers and the sort of things we've seen at 7-Eleven. We also recognise that there is unfinished business in terms of occupational licensing and to put it a mark in sort of plain English, what we recognise is that whilst tradespeople come to Australia and because of Labor, they have to within 90 days make sure they have the appropriate qualifications done at the state level. There is an enforcement capacity to actually make sure that the system's still not being scammed. Now that's a general problem in our opinion. It's not a problem of the CHaFTA. But  taking a little longer I don't expect that unions will automatically going to agree that CHAFTA's good. I don't expect plenty of people in the community especially those looking for work to say there aren't issues out there.

 

But Labor set three requirements for our position when we released our amendments. Better labour market testing or market testing at all, making sure we had a better testing of the local labour market in wages and also making sure there was an improvement in occupational licensing. To be fair the government has come to the party on a range of those concerns and that's why we're taking the position we are today, because we're satisfied there is a better deal for Australian jobs than before today.

JOURNALIST: To Mark's point too, your original negotiation point was around 57,000. Will there be some people who because of what you've have come to, they will end up above that but there will be people below that?

WONG: The TISMIT, I think it's called, the temporary skilled migration income threshold, will be put through a review process. So there will be consideration of that. I think as I discussed in this room at the time, we recognise there were some industries where there were some concerns about changing those arrangements, so the package really delivers an alternative outcome to protect wages - Australian wages and conditions. A review process on the TISMIT but more importantly the market salary rate specifically referencing the applicable enterprise agreement. So the principle is, if you bring in an overseas worker you have to pay them the rate you would've paid an Australian worker in that location. So it's a strengthening of the market salary requirements. From our perspective, I think that's an alternative outcome that actually provides greater safeguards for Australian wages and conditions.

JOURNALIST: [inaudible] Greenfields sites?

WONG: That's true. There are always particular circumstances that the Immigration Department will have to assess, but in terms of the legal obligation, you can say the legal obligation on employers to observe Australian wages and conditions and for overseas workers to be paid the same will be far greater as a result of the safeguards Labor has achieved.

JOURNALIST: Senator Wong I reckon you've got one out of three. I reckon the regulations, I'll give you the regulations but I don't see where the 457 salary level changes and I don't see what the difference is with the skills from what exists at the moment. With 457s, don't you have to be paid what other Australian workers are paid on projects, so how would that be different? And secondly, on the skills thing, I think it's 90 days now, isn't it?

WONG: Okay, happy to deal with those. The first point that I'd make clear is all three of those outcomes will be in regulation. All three outcomes on the issues you just raised will be in regulation. Not just the labour market testing. Second, it is true that internal Immigration Department policy says they should have regard to enterprise agreements. What we've got is policy being turned into legal obligation. So I think that is a substantial strengthening of the safeguards. And in relation to the licence issue, and I'm happy afterwards, I'm sure that people don't want me to read to you the current visa conditions that are proposed but it is very clear that the visa conditions that currently exist will be substantially strengthened. There is no specific visa condition that prohibits you from working in a manner inconsistent with the licence and there is no requirement in the existing visa conditions to notify the Department in writing if the licence is refused revoked cancelled or seized. And there is a tightening of the other obligations which is you must hold the licence, you must hold it within 90 days and you must comply with the conditions. I'm happy for you to compare the two conditions. On this one I'll be clear, we didn't achieve everything we wanted because there was an additional notification requirement we wanted. But of the things we wanted, in this regard, we've achieved most of the visa conditions, I think it was four out of the five we put. What I'd say to you is we actually got three out of three. Three out of three, legal changes to migration regulations, to ensure legal obligations which are going to safeguard Australian jobs, wages and conditions and our licensing regime.

 

JOURNALIST: You mentioned the speedy passage. What's your understanding of the time frame to lock this in?

 

WONG: The government will bring this Bill on today. It was intended to be debated tomorrow but obviously in good faith given the negotiations were on foot, it was agreed to delay consideration till after the negotiations had been finalised. Obviously, I'm a Senator, so I don't like to make commitments about what happens in the House because I get very grumpy when they make commitments at our end but I understand obviously Tony Burke will negotiate with Christopher Pyne on that in terms of passage.

 

JOURNALIST: You will facilitate it quickly through the Senate as well, will you?

 

WONG: We understand the importance of passage prior to the end of this year. That was always something we were mindful of. It's why we gave the government I think early indication of what amendments we wanted, well ahead of the debate. And that enabled the negotiation to proceed. So we understand the importance of passage by the end of the year, but in the Senate, we'll allocate as much time as is required for people to have their say.

 

JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, did you or Shadow Cabinet give consideration to the question time changes that the Prime Minister unveiled yesterday? Will Labor be responding in kind? As a general second question, can you beat Malcolm Turnbull when the election is eventually called?

 

SHORTEN: Let me answer the second one first - yes I can. We'll do that because we've got policies which we believe talk to the lives of Australians. We believe in properly funded health care in this country. We think that every child should go to a school where they're properly funded, not based upon the postcode they live in or the wealth of their parents. We've got policies about protecting Australian jobs just as we're announcing today. So we can, and I look forward to that contest.

 

In terms of the Question Time changes: I don't mind what the government asks the government. I'm a little surprised if their backbenchers haven't been raising matters of constituency importance before now. If this is a new trend for the Liberals, to start speaking up for their electorates, excellent. But in terms of the Opposition, we will just be holding the government to account. I understand that maybe the Prime Minister thinks that Question Time's dull or it's a waste of time. So how they use their time is entirely up to them. But for Labor, we are most committed in Question Time, as we are for the other 23 hours of the day, to making sure that we hold the government to account.

 

We don't actually think that all the policies which need to be changed have changed. And indeed if you look at the family cuts proposal which is being proposed today, we understand the government's moved away from its first round of over-the-top cuts to family benefits but we're going to study carefully the detail of the Liberal legislation because we're concerned that the Government hasn't actually changed its view on cutting family payments; they just can't get past Labor in the Senate, so is this a new way to do it or if they're sensible ideas?

 

Anyway, what questions the Liberal Party want to ask the Liberal Party is entirely a matter for the Liberal Party. We speak up for Australians.

 

JOURNALIST: Do you think the family payments changes are in any way any better than what was announced in the 2014 Budget? Is there anything positive there to consider?

 

SHORTEN: To put the answer to your question positively, I'm sure they're no worse. I'm sufficiently optimistic about that. And it is a strength of Labor's victory that we've managed to secure stopping this. Remember and some of you have breathlessly reported in the past that the Abbott Government is going to deliver these family benefit changes. I think Scott Morrison was the author of it. Malcolm Turnbull was in Cabinet voting for, cheering it on. This government has only backed off on family payments because of the strength of the Labor Party and I might just give Jenny Macklin a shout-out here, but the whole Labor team, have been very staunching in making sure that families on low incomes don't lose thousands of dollars. Now, we will look carefully, David, at the propositions that the government's doing but excuse us for not immediately being a rubber stamp or a cheer squad because the only thing that's changed in terms of the government on family payments is they know they can't get past Labor with one set of rotten cuts so we want to examine if there's any good ideas there or if there's harsh cuts and how many people will be affected.

 

JOURNALIST: Do you acknowledge any need for savings in the family benefit space?

 

SHORTEN: We acknowledge the need for savings generally but I have never believed and Labor has never believed, that the way you get the Budget into surplus by stinging the vulnerable. For the life of me I don't understand why the Liberal Party of Australia has to be dragged kicking and screaming to going after the ridiculously generous superannuation tax concessions of a few very wealthy people. What is the case for people who already have millions of dollars in savings to get a tax concession on the income they earn from millions of dollars? Yet at the same time, the government wants to take thousands of dollars off families.

 

JOURNALIST: How do you think Joe Hockey's contribution will be remembered and he's widely expected to go to Washington. How do you think they will go there?

 

SHORTEN: I didn't agree with a lot of what Joe Hockey did as Treasurer over the last two years but today is his day. He's giving his valedictory speech. I'm capable of separating my dislike of the person's policies from my views about the person. So I wish Joe and his family well. I don't know if it's been confirmed if he's going to America or not. But in terms of serving, he has served in the Parliament for nearly two decades. I haven't agreed with a lot of what he has said but he has been consistent to his world view so I wish him well.

 

Thanks everyone.

 

ENDS

MEDIA CONTACT: LEADER’S OFFICE MEDIA UNIT 02 6277 7340

ANNIE WILLIAMS (WONG) 0428 040 522