Interview on ABC Northern Tas Country Hour - ChAFTA

91.7 ABC NORTHERN TAS COUNTRY HOUR WITH SALLY DAKIS

Interview with Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Senator Richard Colbeck

Tuesday, 2 September 2015,

Subjects: China free trade agreement

DAKIS

Well today the practicality and the politics of trade in Devonport this morning. When Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Senator Richard Colbeck rejected concerns about the China FTA and called on Tasmanian opposition leader Bryan Green to back the deal.

Of course it comes as Tasmania's Premier Will Hodgman gears up for his trade mission to China, with lots of upside for Tasmanian exporters likely out of the deal.

We just need to think about how big the Chinese consumption in seafood actually is and it is truly enormous because the total volume they consume more seafood than the EU, US and Russia, put together.

We'll have trade and we'll also look at the future of Forestry Tasmania.

Rural News now:

ALLEN

Hello, I'm Tony Allen.

Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Senator Richard Colbeck has warned against trying to renegotiate details of the free trade agreement with China. Federal Labor and the unions want changes to protect Australian workers jobs.

But Senator Colbeck says negotiations have taken ten years and Labor should show genuine national leadership and support the deal.

COLBECK

It is our reputation that's at risk in this circumstance, not China's reputation. They've put an awful lot on the table in this free trade agreement and it is very, very ambitious and quite bold. Particularly in respect to agriculture, they've got a significant number of issues they need to manage, with a modernisation of their agriculture.

DAKIS

As you heard in the Rural News there, Tasmanian Senator and Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Richard Colbeck, says playing politics with the China FTA is a very dangerous thing. He's called for Tasmania's opposition leader Bryan Green to back the FTA and he has discounted concerns the deal would undermine workforce conditions.

Richard Colbeck today told Alex Blucher, there is no need to add clarity to the current FTA to protect Australian workers.

COLBECK

Well, the disappointing thing from my perspective is that I see it as being more about politics than it is about anything else. We've maintained protections for labour force here in Australia and the free trade agreement doesn't impact on any of the Australian law as it stands. So this is about politics, it is not about the free trade agreement.

You're talking about our biggest trading partner here. Playing politics with that I think is very dangerous. It is a difficult situation and as Andrew Robb said on his return from China this week - the Chinese will walk away. They've been very, very bold with what they've offered us, particularly around agriculture in this free trade agreement.

I have made a point of congratulating them when I have been talking to them about that, because they have really opened up in a way that no other country in the region has been prepared to. They've taken some real risks in the offerings that they have put out there for Australia in the free trade agreement and if we let it fall over for the sake of politics, it would be a complete disaster.

BLUCHER

The Labor Premiers in both South Australia and Victoria have come out in support of the China free trade deal. What would you like to see from the Labor opposition leader here, Bryan Green?

COLBECK

Well, Bryan Green ought to show some leadership too and likewise, support the free trade agreement. It is interesting that these two premiers have the responsibility of managing the economies of their state, and so they've taken the responsible perspective on the free trade agreement.

They know that it will mean jobs; they know it will mean growth for their economies, not just in agriculture as we've talked about, but also in other areas of the economies they need to grow. So we need real leadership, genuine leadership from the Labor Party here in Tasmania but also nationally and this crazy political campaign against the free trade agreement needs to come to an end.

BLUCHER

Now this statement from the Trade Minister, Andrew Robb, that China will walk away from the deal if it is changed - is there emptiness to that in some respect, because it is actually not in China's best interests to walk away from this deal? Because it will look like they've lost the opportunity to do a deal with a developed nation and it's breaking new ground for China as well.

COLBECK

We've spent ten years negotiating this with China. If we go back now and say we want to change, it is effectively us that's stepping back from the deal, not China. So I think it is our reputation that's at risk in this circumstance, not China's reputation.

They've put in an awful lot on the table, as I've said, for this free trade agreement. It is very, very ambitious. It is quite bold, particularly in the respect of agriculture. They've got a significant number of issues to manage with the modernisation of their agriculture and so not only just in physical trade of goods, but the opportunity also exists for us to be providing services into that market as well.

Interestingly, that's how New Zealand developed their dairy relationship with China. It was a service offering to start with and they then converted that to a goods offering; and that's what gave them the edge initially into that market.

Our industries can't afford not to get the tariff reductions, particularly when we're competing against countries like New Zealand into that market. Our seafood industry for example has a significant disadvantage into the Chinese market, as opposed to the New Zealand industry - because they are now tariff free.

BLUCHER

The Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association on the Country Hour Rural Report late last week said they support the China free trade agreement but they just called for a bit more clarity around the wording for preference for Australian workers in the actual agreement itself. Rather than relying on government policy, like labour policy and the 257 visas - the 457 visa. So do you think that there should be just one line, one reference that clears it up, like the TFGA are saying so that this issue can be put behind Australia?

COLBECK

In the legislation to bring the free trade agreement into effect, there are no modifications to our labour laws. So there doesn't need to be any changes. There doesn't need to be any clarifications. The protections that exist in Australia's laws, still exists. A treaty doesn't change that. There doesn't need to be any clarification and there's risk to Australia in saying to China that we want to change the free trade agreement; it's our reputation at risk here.

Protections remain in place and what I think has happened is that they have been spooked by some of the campaign that has been run by the union movement and the Labor Party. The Labor Party needs to show some leadership and step back from this and let the union movement know that they are not going to be caught up by this xenophobic campaign.

BLUCHER

Even if there is proper labour market testing, for instance, if there is a big $150 million development here in Tasmania - it is widely known that there is a skills shortage. So if there is labour market testing, it's found that there aren't the appropriate skills here and a Chinese workforce is brought in, and then is that a disincentive to companies to build up skills here locally? Because they can just prove that there are not the skills here and bring in a workforce?

COLBECK

Well what this free trade agreement does is puts China, our largest trading partner, on the same terms and conditions as 150 other countries. So how do you treat your most important trading partner? Do you have them at a disadvantage to other countries? Or do you treat them exactly the same? My view would be that you treat them with respect and treat them the same as you would Chile, for example.

BLUCHER

But would you extend the same respect to the local people here who want to build up their skills, who could be bypassed by this agreement?

COLBECK

Well I would; there will be opportunity as the economy grows for those skills to grow. I mean, it's much more preferable to use local labour where you possibly can. You only need to look at internationally owned businesses here in Tasmania now.

If you look at Savage River Mine for example, it probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the foreign investment that came into it - it is owned by the Chinese. Its environmental performance is better than what it was previously. It's now a growing operation because there is capacity for investment in growth. We need $40 billion a year in investment just in the agricultural sector for it to continue to grow as we want it.

If we want foreign investment sending negative signals to our trading partners, and particularly our biggest trading partner - I think it is an absolute disgrace and it needs to stop. We need to be letting China, our major trading partner know that we value the relationship, we will treat them just like anybody else in the market and so, that's what we ought to be doing - and that's my message to anyone in this process, particularly Bill Shorten and the Labor Party. Back off, get on board like the Labor Premiers in South Australia and Victoria have, and so many other Labor leaders - genuine Labor leaders and let's get this free trade agreement underway.

DAKIS

Senator Richard Colbeck was talking with Alex Blucher at Devonport a short time ago on the FTA.

(end)

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