FARM groups have rallied behind the introduction of enabling legislation into the House of Representatives today on the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), saying any delay would be “reckless and unforgivable”.
While the Liberal leadership dispute unfolded this week in Canberra, National Farmers Federation members and president Brent Finlay continued lobbying for bipartisan support on ChAFTA’s ratification.
On the back of a vehement union campaign opposing ChAFTA due to concerns about local job protections, the NFF warned failure to ratify the ChAFTA could cost the Australian agriculture sector up to $18 billion over 10 years, according to recent economic analysis by the peak farm lobby group.
“This agreement is a game-changer - it’s a golden ticket to the world’s second largest marketplace, comprising 1.3 billion consumers eager for Australian products and services,” Mr Finlay said.
“It’s an opportunity to supercharge the Australian economy at a time when access to larger markets is desperately needed, particularly for our agriculture sector.
“With unequalled proximity to a wealthier, choosier and hungrier Asian population, the opportunities for Australia’s high-quality produce are endless.
“The need to ratify this agreement is now more important than ever.”
NFF said the ChAFTA would remove over 85 per cent of the taxes and duties imposed on Australian goods this year, rising to 93pc after four years and 95pc when it is fully implemented.
In urging bipartisan support for the trade agreement, Mr Finlay said it needed to be implemented before December 31 and arguments about labour market testing “need to be put to bed”.
“The agreement does not change existing protocols and if Parliamentarians have an appetite to change migration arrangements they shouldn’t do it by holding the Australian economy to ransom,” he said.
“The Opposition needs to end the uncertainty and offer their support for the agreement.
“Denying Australian businesses a double tariff cut for the sake of playing politics would be reckless and unforgivable.”
The Australian Dairy Industry Council also echoed the NFF’s concerns about the legislation introduced today by federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb.
ADIC Chair Noel Campbell said the Labor party needed to put politics aside to ensure the deal was ratified as soon as possible.
“The ChAFTA is a great deal for Australian dairy and a great deal for the Australian community,” he said.
“To delay the ChAFTA means a lost opportunity, for jobs, farmers, and regional towns.
“We need to implement this deal swiftly to ensure Australia doesn’t fall further behind its competitors who already have an FTA with China.”
Mr Campbell noted the implementing legislation made no changes to the Migration Act.
He said the ADIC understood the labour market provisions in ChAFTA were consistent with the existing 457 visas and other FTA’s.
“If the ChAFTA is ratified this year, the dairy industry will see a growth in job creation across the value chain, both on farm and in the processing plants,” he said.
“The ADIC expects that around 600 to 700 jobs will be created within the first year of ratification.
“The flow-on effects of this growth would undoubtedly benefit the rural and regional communities where dairy plays an important role.
“Implementation this year would also mean the elimination of tariffs on Australian dairy products to China worth approximately $60 million.”
Worker protections remain: Robb
Speaking with Sydney 2GB radio broadcaster Alan Jones, Mr Robb said it was untrue that Chinese companies, for projects over $150 million dollars, would be able to bring their own workforce into Australia and not need to offer jobs to local workers first.
Mr Robb said blue collar workers “don’t have one thing to worry about”.
“Nothing has changed in terms of worker protections compared to all the other agreements that have been done; some of them by the Labor Party,” he said.
“It was an area that I knew, as the negotiator with my team, that if we had a cigarette paper of difference between existing laws and the China deal, that we would have a big problem.
“Now we have ended up with not a cigarette paper between what existed over several years now – including during the time of the Labor government.”
Mr Robb said the night that the agreement was signed in June the government released thousands of pages of text.
But he said literally two or three hours later, the unions were running television advertising and went into about 12 electorates phoning about 70,000 homes with robotic calls saying people would lose jobs because the government had scrapped labour market testing.
In response to Mr Jones’ suggestion the union campaign had nothing to do with free trade and its aim was to “knock off the Abbott government” Mr Robb said, “exactly”.
Mr Robb has also said the deal can’t be re-opened or “China will walk”.
“I’ve got no doubt about that; they’ve got bigger fish to fry,” he said last week.
“It will be a slight to them.
“The embarrassment to them in the global trading scene will be such that they will walk in my view.
“The opportunity of a lifetime that this presents will be squandered.
“Our opportunity to start to really benefit from the economic revolution that is going on in all the emerging countries around us will be put in jeopardy.
“This is pure politics; those protections are in the deal.
“Bill Shorten got the boats policy turned around at Labor’s national conference on the condition that he stood up against this Free Trade Agreement.
“Now this is him being led around by the nose by the thuggish CFMEU who are facing all sorts of criminal investigations at the present time.
“It’s bizarre really that the country is being run by a union that, before the Royal Commission, daily, is being exposed as being involved in fraudulent and criminal activities.”
But Labor Shadow Trade Minister Penny Wong said Labor still had some concerns about ChAFTA but recognised it would create jobs.
“What we want is for Australians to have the opportunity to fill those jobs,” she said.
“We have said we recognise the government is not in a position to go back and renegotiate every aspect of this agreement with Beijing, so what we have said is rather than try and renegotiate, what we would like to do is to build safeguards around the existing agreement.
“We want to have a stronger safeguard when it comes to Australian jobs.”