Bill's Transcripts

Press Conference: Canberra - Labor’s China FTA safeguards to support Australian Jobs; Liberal Party’s Trade Union Royal Commission






SUBJECT/S: Labor’s China FTA safeguards to support Australian Jobs; Liberal Party’s Trade Union Royal Commission; National Security; Labor’s Shadow Ministerial team


BILL SHORTEN, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION: Today, my leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, and myself are going to outline our ideas to help see the effective passage of the China Free Trade Agreement. Today we urge Malcolm Turnbull and the Government to come to the table to deal with a range of concerns that have been put forward and then we can all successfully support the China Free Trade Agreement.


We understand there are great benefits in a China free trade agreement for many people. We're also very committed to making sure that there are no unintended consequences which see Australians miss out on jobs. So today we are tabling an exposure draft of amendments, and I'll get Senator Wong to talk about them in a minute, which go towards not the actual treaty but go towards some of the enabling legislation to make sure that all Australians can be winners out of a China free trade agreement.


There are three specific amendments we'll be talking about and Penny will talk in greater length about them but, one, there's a proposal of investment facilitation agreements which would see that currently if the investment which is over $150 million, if the investment's above that threshold, there would be no requirement to adequately or mandatorily check for Australians to see if they could get first chance to do that work. We think this should be looked at and make sure that Australians do get first chance to work on these great new projects.


The second proposal is that we want to lift the threshold, the base pay, for 457 visa workers from $53,000 to about $57,000.


And the third amendment and whilst there's a bit more detail around these, these are the three principles, we want to make sure people coming here working in licensed trades and occupations, that they have actually the qualifications sufficient to meet safety and local standards in Australia.


So that's the bundle of amendments. There's a bit more exciting detail in them which Penny will take you through, but we think that these measures which don't go to the actual treaty but go towards belt-and-bracing the proposition, will actually mean all Australians can unite behind the China Free Trade Agreement and this is the final point which I want to make on opening - we get, in Labor, that trade liberalisation is a good thing. What we don't accept through trade liberalisation is there automatically has to be lots of winners and losers. The Government says that, ‘well, the measures which we're talking about, they're unnecessary because there's no harm that we're concerned about which is arising out of this’. What we say to the Government is let's have the sort of constructive discussion, not the political discussion, but a constructive discussion about how we secure the benefits of an improved trade access with China but also we make sure we never forget making sure that Australians get work is something which all political parties should be committed to.


Now, I'll pass over to Penny to talk more about the detail of what we're saying.




First on a principles basis, I want to talk about the basis on which we approach consideration of the China Free Trade Agreement and the safeguards we're putting forward today to you.


First is, as Bill said, Labor recognises the benefits of trade. We have for 40 years or more, and we've got a long-standing history of deeper engagement, political and economic, with China. We recognise the benefits of the ChAFTA which does remove tariffs on Australian exports and will boost our farm exports and so forth and improve access to services. But there are concerns about this agreement. It goes further than any other trade agreement in relation to access to the Australian labour market. It goes further in terms of a project base work agreement stream known as the investment facilitation agreements.


So in order to find a way through, we approach this on the basis of a few principles. One, any safeguards had to be consistent with the agreement, regardless of what concerns we may have with the totality of the agreement or any aspect of it, we recognise as a responsible Opposition that we have to work within the framework of the existing agreement so amendments have to be consistent with the agreement that didn't require negotiation, that would enable the agreement to come into force and of course were non-discriminatory, that was made clear to us by our discussion with stakeholders.


As I said, the primary concerns were access to the Australian labour market, the investment facilitation agreements and also, the changes to skills assessment so today what we are doing is releasing exposure draft amendments and I emphasise that because obviously we do want both a capacity to consult with stakeholders but also the negotiate with the Government if they are willing to look to the national interest. Those safeguards deal with three areas of concern and they would enable, if the negotiation is successful, bipartisan support for the China free trade agreement which we believe is in the national interest.


First in relation to the investment facilitation arrangements. What we would want is provisions in the Migration Act to ensure that there is labour market testing in the legislation which reflect the fundamental premise of the temporary migration program and that is a program for addressing skills shortages where employers cannot find local workers to fill those jobs. It's never been, in terms of any political party's position, an arrangement which is about by-passing local workers. There are also a number of other amendments in relation to IFAs, including an Australians job test, requirement that employers adopt training plans, a requirement that there's an overseas worker support plan, to reflect the exploitation we have seen, regrettably, in the labour market.


I do want to make this point, these amendments are not intended to apply retrospectively so they won’t disrupt existing arrangements and we have retained flexibility for the Minister in relation to these amendments because we understand there are existing arrangements, for example, in the meat processing industry.


The second set of amendments go to the movement of natural persons. That’s in chapter 10 of the agreement. What we are doing there, as Bill said, is ensuring the temporary skilled migration income threshold, which is the wages floor for the 457 program is raised to $57,000 and then indexed for growth. I want to be clear what that represents. In Government, we insured that this wage floor for the temporary migration program was indexed, the Government froze it. So $57,000 brings it back to what it would have been had Labor been in government, we then propose to index it automatically by legislation so that goes to the wages floor for the 457 program.


Finally, there's a mandatory skills assessment issue and the Government, as Bill has said, removed mandatory skill assessment for a range of trades workers. Now, the Government's answer to that is of course that many of these occupations require licensing under state jurisdictions. The evidence to us and the discussion with us is there are some enforcement issues at times in this area to deal with that. What we have done is sought to link the issuing of the visa with the holding of the licence, in other words, ensuring there is in federal migration law, requirements that ensure people have the right occupational licence, for example as electricians, not only to come into the country but to work as an electrician and if not as a condition of their visa, they would not be able to continue to hold that visa.


So those are the amendments that we are putting forward. As I said, exposure draft amendments. We hope that the Government will not act like Tony Abbott was acting and Malcolm Turnbull shows that he's not Tony Abbott and that he's prepared to sit down with the Opposition in order to try and gain bipartisan support in the national interest.


SHORTEN: Thanks, Penny.  Are there questions?


JOURNALIST: Isn't there a danger that these changes will tie up the projects and investment and so on, in unnecessary red tape?


SHORTEN: Not at all. I think everyone shares the goal that if there's to be greater investment in Australia as a result of trade agreements, we want to make sure Australians actually get jobs. So, no, labour market testing is not unduly onerous at all but I think it is important, especially when we've got such high youth unemployment in many parts of Australia, especially regional Australia, that our young Australians do get the chance to be able to do some of this work. And of course we're happy to sit down and talk to the Government about how that works but I think there is an important principle here, isn't there, trade liberalisation should work for all Australians not just some.


JOURNALIST: Senator Wong, how have your discussions so far gone with Andrew Robb?


WONG: Well, there have been no formal discussions for obvious reasons. We haven't had a clear position from the Government about whether they're willing to have a discussion and we certainly haven't had Caucus approval around what Labor's proposed amendments would be. So I look forward to having fruitful negotiations with Mr Robb if they're willing to do so.


JOURNALIST: Has he given any indication that those negotiations will be pending, will actually take place and did your discussions prior to that, even though they were in formal, did they inform the package you put forward -  in other words, do you have a reasonable level of confidence that there is a compromise in the offing?


WONG: No, our concerns and our amendments were informed by our considerations of the agreement and our assessment of the areas of concern and not withstanding what the Government is saying, or has been saying, there are aspects of this agreement which do go further than previous trade agreements. And the Government would do well, I think, to deal with those issues.


In terms of discussions, obviously you'd anticipate the Shadow Minister and the Minister would have discussions on a range of issues but certainly we now have the capacity to have proper negotiations and I'd encourage the Government to do that in good faith.


JOURNALIST: You mentioned just on the IFAs, you mentioned there was flexibility for the Minister, could you just explain?


WONG: Sure. I would say the media release will have a link which will enable you to see not only the text of the draft amendments but the explanatory note and a fact sheet which I'm sure will be helpful.


The logic here is we understand because these amendments have wide application, that we need some flexibility for existing arrangements, so for example, the meat industry is one industry that's made representations about their existing arrangements so we will ensure that we don't disrupt arrangements which are currently working well. The idea is to ensure that subsequent arrangements, so after the China FTAs come into place, do reflect the safeguards we've outlined.


JOURNALIST: Senator Wong, will you attempt to move the amendments in the Reps or the Senate and are they Labor's last words? Would you block the agreement if one or more of these were not accepted by the Government?


WONG: Well, first, these are exposure draft amendments. We'll go through that process of negotiation and consultation and if we're not in a position to finalise those prior to the House discussion then obviously we'll move them in the Senate.


JOURNALIST: And the second part of the question?


SHORTEN: Well Phil, if I might answer that. We'll succussed. If there's enough people of good will in the parliament and moving from the more abrasive style of Tony Abbott to a sort of different style with Malcolm Turnbull. What Labor is doing is we're just standing up for Australian jobs. There's been independent experts who have said, "Hey, you should look at the detail of the fine print in terms of some of these matters," and we have. I can't see, Phil, a very good reason why anyone who cares about Australian jobs would simply write off Labor's proposal so let's not focus on failure, Phil, let's focus on successful negotiations.


JOURNALIST: The IFAs were specified in a side letter, I think, to the trade agreement, so I think in your opening remarks you said this wouldn't be changing the substance of the trade agreement but if you're going to change the way the IFAs work, aren't you actually changing the substance of this trade deal with China?


WONG: We have assumed, for the purposes of our consistency tests, that the agreement, the MoU and the side-letters all form part of the agreement with China. And whilst they might have different statuses in international law, we understand that ultimately this is an agreement between the PRC and the Australian Government and so we have sought in our amendments - we have been very careful and obviously, we put them out as an exposure draft, but we have been very careful to ensure these amendments are consistent with all of those documents and all of those undertakings.


JOURNALIST: Will you speak to China, for instance, the Chinese may look at this and think that Labor is trying to change the deal. What's your message to China?


WONG: We're not trying to change the agreement, we're trying to introduce reasonable complimentary safeguards.


JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, the Thiess HR manager has told the Royal Commission today that $300,000 of payments made to the AWU over a number of years to which you were an initial negotiating party were largely based on sham invoices. What is your recollection of the negotiate over the side payments?


SHORTEN: I haven't seen the evidence that I think you're referring to. It has been given today, has it, James?




SHORTEN: I haven't seen the evidence today but I certainly stand by the 900 questions and answers that I gave in the Royal Commission. Your question goes to a few matters here so let me take from the top. I am very proud of improving workers' conditions on the East Link agreement, I don't think any evidence so far led has said there's anything other than the highest possible rates for civil construction workers in Australia. That project also finished ahead of time and had an excellent safety record. In terms of some of the matters, the evidence yesterday by the head IR negotiator, Mr Sasse, made it really clear, black-and-white clear - and it's good to get a chance to say it again today - that there was no arrangement of the nature that you're just putting to me now.


JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten, -


SHORTEN: Sorry, I said this was a big issue and you've made a couple of points so I think in fairness, the issue is not necessarily covered in some of the reporting this morning, it is a good chance to get it out there. What I would also say is that when it comes to anything of a criminal nature, I have not and would not condone that, full stop.


JOURNALIST: Mr Sasse’s close colleague and successor at Thiess says he has a diary note from December 2004 that shows you were a party to initial conversations and that you'd requested specifically four organisers for the project to be funded by Thiess. Do you have any recollection of that conversation? Is he making it up?


SHORTEN: Again, you're going to evidence has been led today, I believe, and as I said I haven't seen that evidence so I'm not going to comment on evidence I haven't seen.


JOURNALIST: But I have told you what the evidence is.


SHORTEN: With respect to you, James, I will actually check the evidence that you're quoting from because it is an important matter. But what I can say, going to the substance of your question, as I said at the Royal Commission, as I've said before the Royal Commission, as I've said since I appeared at the Royal Commission, I did not strike any agreement of the nature which you are raising, full stop. That's been the evidence which has been led.


JOURNALIST: I am talking about discussions -


SHORTEN: I don't recall every discussion I've had but the point about it is, as you know, it's all about was there an agreement and the evidence, uncontrovertible - and I should also say some of the evidence showing there was no agreement wasn't released by the Royal Commission, it had to be chased, had to be chased by lawyers representing myself to make sure it came out. But as I recall very clearly, it was a very good agreement for workers, it was a very good agreement for the company. I'm proud of cooperative industrial relations in this country and certainly when it comes to the matter, was there an agreement? No, there wasn't.


JOURNALIST: Does Labor support control orders for 14-year-olds?


SHORTEN: We've just seen some of those proposition’s today. It's not an easy issue, is it, this issue of teenagers, people who are juveniles who go out and kill someone. This is not easy ground - we've seen tragically in the last two years at two different police stations, very young people, who’ve been clearly perverted, engaging in terrible criminal conduct. So whilst on one hand it sounds draconian to have control orders on 14-year-olds, I also get that the police are trying to work through the issues.  So I think that when it comes to teen radicalisation, Labor's willing to work with the Government on their proposals but you can't take that as an automatic agreement. I think the best thing that we can do in this place is calm and steady. The whole point, and in my discussions with police since the Parramatta shooting, is that we've got to be careful we don't osterisicise young people or push them further into the arms of those who would do harm to Australian society and Australians. I’ve seen arguments about the control order, can it be done, is it practical, we see some police are saying it is important. What I'm going to do is take a calm and sensible approach, I'll sit down with Malcolm Turnbull, we'll work with the state authorities and what we'll do is get the balance right. But we've just come and some of you, I think, attended a National Unity Day of all the faiths coming together. I think that, you know, I'll say that this is one good thing since Malcolm Turnbull's become the leader - it is good to have national leadership, bipartisan, working at how we unite the community. Labor's always been up with that and we'll continue to do it. Paul.


JOURNALIST: Mr Shorten what is the result of the shadow ministerial reshuffle?


SHORTEN: it’s a good result. It’s an excellent result. We’ve got some new blood. We'll put out a final statement in the next half hour, we're just making sure we've crossed all our T’s and dotted all our I’s.


JOURNALIST: Senator Wong did you discuss with the trade unions that have been campaigning against the China Free Trade Agreement the kind of amendment you'd be looking at and do you think the amendments that you're putting forward will satisfy those trade unions?


WONG: Look, first, it would be unsurprising for you to - it's unsurprising that I would consult not just with them but with key business people. Obviously, on a confidential basis to get some sense of whether or not these sorts of - this sort of approach would be a sensible one and I'm very grateful to people who have been prepared to have that discussion with us. Obviously, there are a range of views inside the labour movement about the agreement but I think the one thing that people are very focused on is the principle under the star which is our skilled migration program in this country, temporary skilled migration, has always been to do with skill shortages and identified need. It’s never been a way of by-passing local employment and I think that is a sensible economic and political proposition. What we are seeking to do is to ensure that that principle is retained in the China Free Trade Agreement to every extent we are able and I think people, whether it's unions or people out there in the community, people understand we are seeking to do that.


JOURNALIST: Your third amendment is designed to ensure that skilled trades people coming have the right skills. Is there anything that what you are proposing would ensure labour market testing has to be undertaken before you bring in skilled trades people?


WONG: No, that’s dealing with a different issue. The labour market testing applies for the IFAs.


JOURNALIST: Is there any that applies to skilled?


WONG: In relation to the movement of natural persons, the chapter 10 issue, obviously there are limits to what we can do there because of the text of the agreement. We would obviously if we'd been in Government we would have a different agreement but this the agreement the Parliament's been presented with so what we are doing there instead is seeking to lift the wages for because I think that is one important step to dealing with the potential issue of exploitation we've been discussing.


JOURNALIST: On qualifications and safety, would English language be an issue there for a qualification for safety?


WONG: Look, what we're doing, rather than prescribing a whole range of additional tests, is seeking to link the existing state regulatory regime with both the grant of and the continued holding of the visa. We think that is a sensible way of managing this issue rather than having us putting in place a whole range of different criteria. We know that there are occupational licensing arrangements within the States. They deal with safety issues, what we're saying is let's connect them more strongly to the visa conditions. Now obviously it's a complicated area, I'm happy to have discussions with the Government about the detail of that but that's the logic of the amendment.


JOURNALIST: Senator, can you get a licence without holding a visa?


WONG: Of course, that's how Australian electricians are licensed.


JOURNALIST: I mean, if you're a foreign electrician, do you have to hold a visa before you can make a licence application? Secondly, does this apply to the whole 150 countries that China will now be placed in with in terms of skills assessment because this just put them in a different basket of people, didn't it?


WONG: Yes, well actually I think there were 10 other countries who weren't in the 150. Some of that detail, I think your question is about sequencing and certainly that's one of the issues of detail we want to work through with the Government. I think the principle is a sound one. The Government's answer always on the safety issue when it was raised is that this is licensed by the States. Well, if the state licensing regime is the one to which Australians have regard; I don't see a policy problem with linking it to visas. In terms of, I think the broader issue, we are looking in these amendments to make them non-discriminatory.


SHORTEN: Listen, just before we go and we finish up this press conference, there was a question about the reshuffle. I'll just make these couple of points. We've promoted Katy Gallagher to become a Shadow Cabinet Minister, with responsibilities including mental health, housing and homelessness. These roles do not exist formally specified in the Turnbull Government. Katy Gallagher brings a wealth of experience and it will show Labor's priority on these important areas. We've also promoted Michelle Rowland to the Shadow Cabinet. For those who know her already, you know she is a very energetic, fierce advocate. She will keep her existing responsibilities and also be our new Shadow Cabinet Minister for small business. Other people, and there's been a few changes, but other people who are being brought forward to do more, Dr Jim Chalmers into the Shadow Ministry. We'll also be bringing forward Terri Butler, many of you have seen preform, she is very capable. As we will also be doing with Senator Sam Dastyari and we've asked Ed Husic to step up and take more responsibilities on board.


Now there are other people who will be doing more as well, but they are just some of the features of it. I want to congratulate my whole shadow ministry team. We haven't needed to make some of the wholesale changes the Government did because our shadow ministry is younger, it has more women, but after today's announcement it has even more women, it has even more energy, this will be the team that I take to the next election. I think I have been fortunate, indeed blessed by the degree of unity in the party. This is our only reshuffle I've had to do on my second anniversary as my Leader of the Opposition.


Thanks everyone.