NATIONAL Farmers Federation CEO Simon Talbot says Chinese farm industry and political officials are confused about the ongoing union-led campaign to derail the free trade deal between the two countries, over labour provisions.
With fears about the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement’s (ChAFTA) future escalating, Mr Talbot joined Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb on a delegation of 35 business CEOs who visited China last week, to try and calm the waters.
Mr Talbot told Fairfax Media the Chinese officials and business leaders genuinely believed Australia had the favourable deal in the trade agreement but were “somewhat confused by the voracity of the union campaign”.
He said they were also bemused by Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s comments about the ChAFTA given they understood successive Labor governments had helped build the trade relationship.
Mr Talbot said a common comment made during last week’s delegation was that trade between the two countries had grown about 1500 per cent since the Hawke government.
But he said locals could not understand why the Labor party would want to renege on the foundations of a relationship they established.
Mr Talbot said he also held talks with trade officials and understood the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) had to be satisfied a genuine labour shortage existed, before foreign workers could be allowed in Australia.
He said DFAT had subsequently confirmed that information and that labour could only be imported for agreed projects, once the shortage was confirmed.
The labour force was also subject to Australian laws and work conditions like the Fair Work Act, he said, and had to operate within the current temporary visa system.
Mr Talbot said he explained that situation to Chinese officials during the delegation.
“Why would you fly in labour and pay accommodation and Australian conditions at great expense if local labour was available?” he said.
“Quite frankly, you wouldn’t.”
Implications of FTA delay
Mr Talbot said the Chinese were not directly threatening to block the ChAFTA if the word "mandatory" was included in agreement in regards to the labour market testing requirements, as demanded by WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle.
But he said the agreement must not be altered otherwise the parties would need to return to the negotiation table forcing Australia to potentially fall behind on China’s potential FTA’s with agriculture peers like Brazil and Canada.
After almost a decade of negotiations, he said altering the agreement would place Australia at the back of the list “not to mention significant job and credibility loss”.
“Many agricultural producers and supply chains are gearing up in preparedness for the agreement being ratified,” he said.
"It's at the centrepiece of significant agricultural expansion in Australia.
“We have only just touched the tip of the iceberg in relation to the opportunity.
“Trust was spoken about at length (on the China delegation) as to a degree the Chinese are taking a bold step to allow Australia such fast access for key commodities.”
Mr Talbot said he and other Australian officials sought to reassure their Chinese counterparts that they wanted the trade agreement to go ahead and they would address the unions’ concerns while holding Labor to a bipartisan trade strategy.
Agreement represents 'risks': Wong
But Shadow Trade and Investment Minister Penny Wong told ABC radio on Tuesday that her party was “up” for a trade agreement with China.
“However we want to make sure we've got an agreement that maximises Australian jobs and that minimises the risk of exploitation in the Australian labour market,” she said.
“We regret that Andrew Robb has brought an agreement home which we believe presents risks.
“We want to find a way through and what we'd say to Tony Abbott is he should do what John Howard was prepared to do which is to sit down with the Opposition and find a way through.
“Because the lack of safeguards when it comes to local jobs in this agreement is not only concerning the Labor party and the trade union movement; it's concerning many people around the country.”
But Mr Abbott said the FTA was concluded and negotiations won’t be reopened.
“You can’t have the Labor Party on the one hand talking about the Asian century and on the other hand snubbing the most powerful country, the strongest economy in Asia, and yet, that's exactly what they're doing,” he said.
“At the moment, Bill Shorten is threatening to sabotage our country’s future by backing the union campaign – the utterly deceitful, xenophobic-at-best union campaign – against this FTA.
“Now, I say to the Labor party: there is absolutely nothing to negotiate here.
“The Labor party should stop listening to the CFMEU and start listening to people like Bob Hawke and Bob Carr - they know the truth.
“This FTA is overwhelmingly in Australia’s interests.”
On Monday the NFF launched a counter-campaign alongside the Minerals Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, saying local jobs and export opportunities were at risk, if federal parliament delayed approving the ChAFTA.
They want federal parliament to ratify the ChAFTA before the year’s end, ensuring Australia benefits from more rapid tariff reductions.
NFF president Brent Finlay said losing out on two rounds of tariff cuts if ChAFTA wasn’t ratified would damage the competitiveness and affordability of all Australian products in China and set Australian agriculture back $300 million in 2016.