AUSTRALIAN farmers are being “wedged” in a “ridiculous political argument” over labour provisions in the China/Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), says WA Labor Senator Glenn Sterle.
Senator Sterle has served on the Rural and Regional Affairs Committee for more than a decade, participating in some of the farm sector’s most controversial inquiries, including wheat exports deregulation and animal welfare standards in live animal exports.
At last week’s public hearing in Canberra for the red meat processing sector inquiry he Chairs, he objected to Fletcher International Exports Managing Director Roger Fletcher’s demand that Labor “not rob farmers” of the ChAFTA.
Mr Fletcher told the inquiry trade was “vital” to the nation’s sheepmeat industry and farmers increasing need for the China trade deal needed to be ratified.
But Senator Sterle said he also backed the ChAFTA because it improved market access for Australian farmers by cutting trade tariffs, to increase their viability.
However, he said he wanted to see a “mandatory” labour market testing provision included in the agreement, to protect Australian workers.
Explaining his position to Fairfax Media, Senator Sterle said farmers were being “wedged” by the Abbott government’s ferocious counter-attack on the unions’ assertions that ChAFTA failed to protect local workers.
“What I’m saying is, we are all for our farmers increasing every opportunity they can to better their markets and export more product to make their businesses more sustainable,” he said.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for farmers and an opportunity to grow the nation’s exports.
“But where the government is being a bit mischievous – and all we’re asking for – is for a mandatory provision to be included in the agreement, in terms of labour market testing.
“We should never wedge our farmers but unfortunately our farmers are being wedged in this ridiculous political argument that’s going on at the moment.”
Senator Sterle said his simple message to Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Trade Minister Andrew Robb was, “just add one word to the agreement, ‘mandatory’, to make the labour market testing mandatory”.
He said the Australian farming community and food processors needed to understand the Abbott government’s attack on the unions for expressing concerns about inadequate labour provisions in the ChAFTA was “terrible”.
“The government’s position in this debate makes it seem like one half of Australia is against our farmers but that’s just not right,” he said.
“It’s a shocking position to put any Australian into and the sooner they can include mandatory labour market testing in the ChAFTA you will find there will be no argument and we’ll all rejoice together.
“Unfortunately this is pitting farmers against other workers; it’s a terrible argument and no government should do this.
“Farmers will think the unions are picking on them but that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Senator Sterle said during WA’s severe drought in 2006 and 2007 many farmers were able to earn income by working Fly-in-Fly-out (FIFO) on the construction of various mining projects, in the north-west and around Geraldton.
“It’s very well documented that many farmers donned the fluoro vest and the fluoro shirt and went FIFO during the drought and thank god were able to keep themselves employed because the farm couldn’t,” he said.
“But there is a massive amount of workers who are not farmers and they will be affected if we allow this ChAFTA to go through, without the ‘mandatory’ wording.
“The agreement clearly says there is no requirement for labour market testing for a project over $150 million and most projects are way over $150m.
“They could be building a hospital too, not just a mine.
“We are denying a generation of kids who may be employed in construction, or engineering, or metalworking, or forklift drivers or storeman, or whatever, the opportunity for a job at the expense of bringing in foreign workers first.
“I just want to make it very clear to the farmers we’re not the enemy.
“If the government says we’re lying and scaremongering and all of that, well they can put the word ‘mandatory’ in the agreement and that will give certainty and say Australian jobs will be thought of first.
“You could never say I’m anti-farmer but this has all got down to a union versus farmer argument.
“There needs to be some sensible discussion on this.”
However, Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey said union claims about the ChAFTA were “complete and utter rubbish” which was a view backed by former Labor leader Bob Hawke last week.
“This is a classic scare campaign being fuelled by Bill Shorten,” he said.
“It’s all about politics for the unions - it’s got nothing to do with Australian jobs.
“In fact, their behaviour is going to cost Australian jobs.
“The truth is these agreements that open up trade with other countries are to the benefit of Australians and Australian jobs.
“They’ve got to advertise in Australia, they’ve got exactly the same requirements as they did when Labor was in government.
“That is, if they’re going to invest $5 billion here, in building new plant and equipment, they need to advertise to Australians and, if they can’t find Australian workers, then they can default to other workers from overseas.
“That’s exactly the same situation as occurred before.
“So, what the unions are doing is running a scare campaign against what was Labor policy.”