22 July 2015

Trade is essential for a strong and growing Australian economy. A good trade deal can deliver lower prices, give consumers greater choice and drive economic growth that creates jobs. Increasing exports will boost living standards and open up new business opportunities.

Labor believes in a confident, open, competitive economy that is engaged with the world. Our commitment to open markets has never been an ideological, or theological one. It sprang from the realisation “Fortress Australia”, sheltered behind its high tariff wall, was not delivering for all Australians. The high tariff wall kept prices elevated and isolated firms from global competition. Businesses that might have thrived were kept cosseted. Labor’s three waves of tariff cuts in 1973, 1988 and 1991 delivered more than two decades of economic expansion. 

We look at open markets as the most powerful engine for growth the world has known. And we know growth is the best way of creating good jobs in productive and competitive enterprises. As the Labor Party’s national platform says: “More trade is a pathway to a high-skill, high-wage future for Australians.” 

Labor also knows there are tremendous opportunities as global economic activity shifts to the Asia-Pacific. Growing and diversifying our relationship with China — our largest trading partner — will be critical. We need to export more agricultural goods and food products to China. We need to see advanced Australian manufacturing integrated into the regional supply chains that are centred on China. We need to export more sophisticated services to China — such as education, healthcare, aged care, financial services, business and professional services, and tourism. 

This is why both sides of politics have been negotiating for a free trade agreement with China. In government Labor worked to progress this deal. 

Unfortunately, Tony Abbott brought home an FTA with China that undermines safeguards for jobs. Abbott has broken the community compact that has always accompanied trade deals — that they promote Australian jobs. Safe, secure and well-paid jobs. 

Australia cannot and should not try to compete with other nations in a race to the bottom on wages and conditions. We should always play to our strengths as a high-skill, high-quality, fair-wage economy.

 The deal Abbott has struck threatens the much broader consensus that trade is a cornerstone of economic growth and jobs.

And worse, Abbott is hiding the truth of his bad agreement by having the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade propagate myths about the agreement. For example, the government claims the FTA will not allow unrestricted access to the Australian labour market by Chinese workers. The fact is the agreement clearly states Australia will not “impose or maintain any limitations on the total number of visas to be granted” or “require labour market testing, economic needs testing or other procedures of similar effect as a condition for temporary entry”. 

The government claims that under investment facilitation agreements Australian workers will continue to be given first opportunity at employment. The fact is there will be no requirement for labour market testing to enter into an IFA. 

These are just two examples of the myths the government is pushing, and the flaws in the China FTA. Abbott simply didn’t stay at the table long enough. Instead of working harder to negotiate a trade agreement that supported local jobs, Abbott negotiated a deal allowing local workers to be bypassed. Instead of negotiating a trade agreement that protected skills and safety standards, Abbott negotiated a deal to water them down. 

Trade agreements should enhance, not undermine, local job opportunities. Labor wants to fix Abbott’s mess and rebuild the consensus around trade. We will fight to reinstate the safeguards that Abbott wants to tear up under cover of the China FTA. In the parliament, Labor will fight to retain labour market testing, so employers need to show they cannot find suitable local workers before they turn to temporary migration for projects greater than $150 million. 

And we will fight to maintain the integrity of Australia’s occupational skills and safety regulations. 

We will do all we can in the parliament before the enabling legislation is passed. Labor’s approach will be to secure the economic benefits of the China FTA while protecting local job opportunities.

This article was originally published in The Australian on Wednesday, 22 July 2015.