Release type: Transcript


Interview with David Speers on Sky News


Senator the Hon Eric Abetz
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for Employment
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Public Service
Senator for Tasmania

DAVID SPEERS: Minister, thank you for your time. According to the documents that were released with this Free Trade Agreement announcement yesterday, the deal will and I quote -‘reduce barriers to labour mobility and improve temporary entry access for Chinese workers’. How will it do that?

MINISTER ABETZ: What we have is described as the ‘investment facilitation agreement’. They are designed to assist with investment in Australia. But they will also be subject to all the workers being paid according to Australian conditions and also being subjected to the requirement that there be a labour market need within Australia. What we have identified are four work areas for example; Chinese traditional medicines, martial arts, Chinese chefs, that will be able to get easier access to Australia. But, once again, only if there is a sponsoring employer will it needing to engage them, and that will then be accepted as a labour need, but of course anyone that comes will have to be paid according to Australian conditions.

DAVID SPEERS: Just to be clear on this, though, does the Agreement reduce barriers? Or improve access as the document suggests? Or is it just exactly what already exists?

MINISTER ABETZ: Basically, the overarching is that which is already there, but we will seek to facilitate and streamline, the processes. That will then be up to the Department of Immigration to determine with the various details. The details, the nuts and bolts of that will be in the final agreement. But, can I also indicate that this will be a reciprocal arrangement for Australians to go to China in circumstances where we will be allowed table to operate wholly owned Australian private health services, private aged care services, so there is a real opportunity and possibility for Australians to grow job opportunities for Australians in China, so this is a two-way street.

DAVID SPEERS: There’s no doubt there’s fabulous opportunity to invest in China. But we know that the wage difference is huge between Chinese workers and Australian workers. So the attraction will be for them to come here. You say the process will be streamlined but are you suggesting that is still to be negotiated, what exactly that means?

MINISTER ABETZ: The full details of that will be negotiated in due course and put in to the diplomatic language or the language of these Free Trade Agreements.

DAVID SPEERS: Is there going to be any change to what happens at the moment or not?

MINISTER ABETZ: Yes, there will be a streamlining. But any worker that comes to Australia will have to be paid and remunerated according to Australian conditions in circumstances where there is a workplace need. And can I say the questioning by the ACTU, followed up by Labor in Question Time today, does have the sniff about it of what the ACTU president herself said;  “it does sound somewhat xenophobic” – and do you know why it sounds somewhat xenophobic? Because I think it is xenophobic. That’s a very concerning development in this debate. This is a huge agreement that has great potential for Australia. That has the potential to grow jobs from the resources sector, to the manufacturing sector, to agriculture and seafood in between, the services sector – and what we’ve got is the Labor Party seeking to blow a whistle in circumstances that even a former ACTU president like Simon Crean has come out to congratulate the Government on this arrangement.

DAVID SPEERS: But is it really xenophobic of the union movement here in particular to ask for more details when they just haven’t been made available? You’re saying the process to bring in more Chinese workers will be streamlined. But we don’t know how.

MINISTER ABETZ: There’s a difference between asking questions and making the sort of allegations that the ACTU and the ALP have. I’ve always believed that it is appropriate to ask questions, to have questions asked of you in public life. But when the ACTU president herself acknowledges in the debate and in questioning that she’s starting to sound xenophobic. I wonder why, Ged Kearney? I wonder why you’re starting to sound xenophobic? Chances are it is because she is being xenophobic.

DAVID SPEERS: She specifically said this morning, I think, she’s not trying to be xenophobic. What has she said? I mean this is a serious accusation. What has she said that’s xenophobic?

MINISTER ABETZ: Well it is her saying this about herself. This is not me making an allegation. This is her saying it about herself and if she’s got that insight into herself and into what the ACTU is doing, might be a good time to stop, take stock and ask some responsible questions or ask for further clarification, rather than making this sort of suggestion that we are going to be inundated by workers from overseas – and heaven help us, it might even be from China. Those sort of comments, I think, really, do the ACTU and the Labor Party no credit in this, if I might I say, the Asian Century, of all things. This is what Labor and the ACTU celebrated, and the first opportunity to genuinely embrace the Asian Century with a free trade agreement with China, and the ACTU, the Labor Party and the Greens are in lockstep to try to...(inaudible)

DAVID SPEERS: ...okay, let me ask you. You've said the process will be streamlined. Will there be more Chinese workers in Australia as a result of this agreement?

MINISTER ABETZ: One never knows the answer to that. But what I can say, definitely, is that as a result of this free trade agreement there will be thousands of more job opportunities for our fellow Australians, from the resources sector to the services sector, seafood, agriculture, this opens up a market for Australia like we have never seen before. It is a growing market, and we have a great reputation for quality products and reliability, and we will be able to leverage off that. And when we do it, when our markets increase, our production increases, jobs increase.

DAVID SPEERS: Looking at what it means for Australian workers, there hasn't been a great deal of focus on what China gets out this agreement. But Australia is going to eliminate all remaining  tariffs on agriculture, processed food imports, including canned fruit, peanuts, manufactured goods, including car parts, steel, aluminium, plastics, carpets, clothing and footwear. All of these people working in these sectors here in Australia, should they be nervous that there is going to be cheaper Chinese products coming in, putting downward pressure on the costs that they face?

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, some of the tariffs that are applied on Chinese goods that will come off are, in fact, consumer goods, which means that the cost of living for Australians will actually come down.

DAVID SPEERS: But if you work in canned fruit or in clothing and footwear or in car parts, you’re going to face some greater competition, aren’t you?

MINISTER ABETZ: As I understand the situation, the Chinese are removing their tariff barriers on our product in the automotive sector and other areas to allow our product into China and, similarly, we are removing our trade barriers to their product. So, for example, with the South Korean Free Trade Agreement, we had a situation where Australia had a 5 per cent tariff on imported automotive products, but something I didn’t know beforehand was that South Korea had an 8 per cent tariff on the introduction of automotive products in to South Korea. And the two countries decided simultaneously, South Korea to remove its 8 per cent barrier on our product and we removed our 5 per cent barrier on their products. So these agreements come with benefits for both sides and that’s the beauty…

DAVID SPEERS: That’s the whole point of free trade, to encourage, grow the pie, I suppose.


DAVID SPEERS: But it does mean for those who are in industries in Australia who produce – whether it’s clothing and footwear or car parts – more expensively than those from China, they are going to face some pressure. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but they are going to face pressure.

MINISTER ABETZ: Look, we already have the production of Ugg boots and footwear in the state, in China. What Australia does very well and I am sure the RM Williams boot, for example, it is an icon, it will continue.

DAVID SPEERS: So that’s the stuff that will survive…

MINISTER ABETZ: The niche, quality products, I believe, will always survive. The boot manufacturer in my home state of Tasmania, Blundstones, regrettably, had to move to China because of pressures well and truly before this free trade agreement.

DAVID SPEERS: You expect more of that to happen?

MINISTER ABETZ: Well, I’m not sure that much more of that will happen. What I am sure of is that there will be huge growth in employment opportunities from people who work on farms right through to qualified lawyers and accountants, those in the health care services. The sky really is the limit. Here we are getting free access to a population of over one billion people. They’re getting access to a market of about 23 million people. Guess who’s going to get the greater benefit of the greater market? It’s clearly going to be Australia, and I think Andrew Robb’s done a fantastic job.

DAVID SPEERS: And let me ask you a parochial Tasmanian question, with the Chinese President there this afternoon. What is in this for Tasmania, what do you see could be the potential?

MINISTER ABETZ: It’s difficult to know where to start where the potential is for Tasmania today. Tasmania has been beamed right around the world, and especially to over one billion Chinese people, putting Tasmania on the map as a tourism destination. We’ve got a wonderful horticulture sector, we’ve got a wonderful seafood sector, we’ve got a wonderful beef sector, we’ve got a wonderful dairy sector. And so wine producing, the cherries, the apple orchards, you name it, they will all benefit. So the abalone and rock lobster wild fishery will greatly benefit. The salmon aquaculture producers will greatly benefit. And that is why this free trade agreement, especially in my home state of Tasmania, is being lauded as really opening an opportunity, and I just hope that every single Tasmanian grabs this opportunity with both hands. I know our Premier, Will Hodgman, will do, and I’m sure that others will as well, and as a result the future for Tasmania can look exceptionally bright if we leverage off all the possibilities that exist.

DAVID SPEERS: Minister, thanks for your time.

MINISTER ABETZ: Thanks a lot.