AUSTRALIAN farmers are gearing up to launch a vigorous defence of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) next week with like-minded industry groups, to counter-attack a union-driven campaign against the deal.
The Abbott government signed the ChAFTA in June concluding decade-long negotiations with the nation’s biggest trading partner.
At the time, Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb claimed the deal represented a “transformative moment” for the national economy, especially agricultural exports which comprised $9 billion last year.
But the historic tariff-cutting trade agreement is now facing growing threat with unions questioning the veracity of its labour agreements and adequacy of protections for Australian workers.
That outspoken opposition has been underpinned by a phone polling campaign in Coalition electorates backed by television advertising and public rallies warning the ChAFTA will favour jobs for Chinese workers over locals.
This week, with concerns about the deal’s future rapidly expanding, Mr Robb will spearhead a delegation of about 30 senior business leaders to China to reinforce the government’s support for the agreement.
In Shanghai and Beijing, he will also call for greater investment in Australian agribusiness and other leading sectors of the national economy.
Mr Robb will also seek to assure his Chinese counterparts of the Abbott government’s “absolute commitment” to the historic trade deal and highlight the long tradition of bipartisan support in Australia for freer trade.
“There is overwhelming support among Australian business for ChAFTA, which will not only lock in policies to support existing trade but will crucially provide a catalyst for future growth across goods, services and investment, benefiting business and consumers on both sides,” he said on departure.
“This explains the urgency to get this agreement into force this year because major benefits will flow from day one.”
National Farmers' Federation CEO Simon Talbot will participate in the China business delegation and along with NFF president Brent Finlay, has called on Labor to clarify its bipartisan support for the ChAFTA and free trade.
Mr Finlay questioned whether there had been a “real shift” away from traditional bipartisan support for free trade within in the Labor camp.
“If there is a shift from bipartisan support for free trade in the Labor party, that is very concerning for the NFF and should also be concerning for all of rural and regional and the whole Australian economy which is built on trade,” he said.
“China is a very important market for Australian agriculture but we’ve also done trade agreements with other countries like Japan and South Korea.
“We’re also negotiating a deal with India and looking to do another one with the EU and there’s also the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership).
“But if there is a shift away from bipartisan support for free trade that would be very, very concerning.”
Mr Robb, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and other senior Coalition ministers and MPs have accused the unions of running a xenophobic campaign against ChAFTA, given other trade deals contain similar labour provisions.
Union campaign 'based on lies'
Mr Talbot said he believed the union campaign against free trade was “at best mischievous and at worst misleading and negligent and based on lies”.
“The success of Australian agriculture and jobs in rural Australia is based on free trade and the ChAFTA means tens of thousands of jobs going into rural Australia when they’re much needed, smart intelligent jobs,” he said.
“Agriculture is one of the few sectors of the Australian economy that shows significant growth upside but without free trade that growth is stifled and we’re taken backwards 20 years.
“We have three years to close the deal with China to have a sustained agricultural economy and relationship that will last 100 years frankly.
“If not, we’ll go to the back of the pack with the North Americans and with the Europeans.”
Mr Robb has flatly rejected the union’s claims about the ChAFTA allowing foreign workers into Australia, without proper labour market testing.
Mr Talbot said the NFF “absolutely agree with Andrew Robb” on that point, saying the union’s campaigning against free trade was just “a political cheap-shot”.
“They’ve grabbed hold of an emotive issue and completely turned it around,” he said.
“They’re claiming the ChAFTA will cost Australian jobs but it will actually help create Australian jobs, from day one.
“The NFF philosophy has always been to improve sustainable farmgate income and free trade helps do that.
“But if you want to erode farmgate income and have higher domestic food prices, inefficient farmers and fewer farmers in Australia, then by all means oppose free trade.
“We’re looking at having 70 per cent agricultural exports in Australia next year and by 2030 that will migrate to 90pc which means the national economy also grows by having freer export capability.
“I’d actually challenge those who don’t support free trade to go to Narrabri and talk to the cotton farmers there - where 95pc of the crop is exported and 75pc of that is exported to China – and tell them they can’t have free trade anymore.”
Mr Finlay said NFF members understood the ChAFTA agreement treaty would be presented to federal parliament in early to mid-October and the NFF wanted to see it pass parliament, with the ALP’s support “straight away”.
“It’s good for Australian agriculture and it’s good for rural and regional Australia because it will generate income and jobs,” he said.
“It is a great agreement and that’s why we need it.
“As soon as the ChAFTA is signed into force in this country the tariff reductions will start straight away and there’s also another tranche of reductions in January 1 next year.
“But if those tariff cuts are delayed, it could add up to about $300m for the Australian agricultural sector.
“This fear campaign from the unions around jobs is linked to the 417 and 457 visa programs but agriculture desperately needs more workers and we’re fighting for all the ones we have now whether they’re domestic or international.
“It’s all about building our economy but to see such a strong campaign being run against jobs and the ChAFTA is very disappointing and threatening to agriculture.”
FTA 'fundamental' to farmers' futures
Mr Robb said the union movement was playing a political game with its anti-ChAFTA campaign.
“We have to get this thing through, in the next couple of months, through the Parliament and the Labor Party has to front up and support this deal," Mr Robb said.
“This is a test for Bill Shorten and his colleagues about whether they are truly in that place in Canberra with the intent of helping the Australian people and the workers that they claim to represent as well.
“We sold 60,000 tonnes of meat to China two years ago - last year we sold 260,000 tonnes of meat to China.
“They went from our 12th biggest meat market to our third biggest meat market.
“That is only a start.
“The future is spectacular for Australia but we have to be able to seal these deals.
“The Free Trade Agreement with China is fundamental to the success of thousands of other farmers across the country in all sorts of areas of agriculture."