XENOPHOBIC scare-mongering is motivating a union inspired political campaign against free-trade with China that could see Australian farmers pay millions of dollars in additional tariffs, says Liberal MP Angus Taylor.
Mr Taylor said telephone cold-calling against the China Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) was underway in marginal electorates, the ferocity of which, he admitted, had caught the Abbott government off-guard.
He said the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) campaign also involved public rallies and television advertising.
But he’s concerned the anti-free-trade agenda goes against the national interest and could be especially detrimental for agricultural exports to the lucrative market.
Mr Taylor said it could also jeopardise the ChAFTA’s future with the Australian parliament still scrutinising the agreement before it can come into full force, despite being formally signed in June in Canberra.
ChAFTA still under scrutiny
The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) is conducting a public inquiry into the ChAFTA and is expected to table a report in early October.
A Senate Committee inquiry is also underway, hearing arguments for and against the deal and due to report within one month of the JSCOT report.
Mr Taylor said the ChAFTA would eliminate taxes on Australian exports to China and took 10 years to negotiate involving both Labor and Coalition governments.
He said it was now time for the agreement to enter into force and remove tariffs on key exports like beef, dairy, cherries and grains.
“Australia can’t get into these massive new agricultural markets in Asia without trade deals, because they’re all shut up,” he said.
“The CFMEU is cutting us off from the best opportunity Australian farming has seen in its history.”
Mr Taylor said Australia also had other free trade agreements in sight including one with India and trying to get the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) back on track after it stalled at last week’s talks in Hawaii.
“The biggest beneficiary of free trade is export-based agricultural commodities and it will always be the most important issue in these free trade agreements, so any attempt to undermine support for free trade is economic vandalism at its worst,” he said.
“The CFMEU are running a phone campaign in marginal seats telling lies about the free trade agreement.
“It is a fear campaign designed to whip-up community sentiment against free trade and every farmer in Australia should be incensed at the dishonesty of the campaign.
“The Labor party are not condemning it and that goes against over 40 years of support in the Labor party for greater market access into China and other important markets.
“Whitlam was the first to support opening these markets up and now the Labor party is refusing to condemn this fear campaign.”
FTA 'sells out' workers: Union
The CFMEU issued a statement at the weekend saying it had polled voters in Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s New England electorate saying 48 per cent opposed the ChAFTA and Mr Joyce would be under pressure to retain his seat, if retired former independent MP Tony Windsor ran against him at the next election.
CFMEU National Secretary Michael O’Connor said the ChAFTA ”sells out” Australian workers by allowing Chinese companies to bring in semi-skilled workers for the first time and doing away with the requirement for employers to advertise for local labour first.
“New England voters would severely punish the Abbott Government for this and Barnaby Joyce could be one of the casualties,” he said.
Labor Shadow Trade and Investment Minister, Senator Penny Wong dismissed suggestions racism underpinned opposing debate over the ChAFTA, saying legitimate questions must be asked and answered; especially on labour conditions for foreign workers.
Senator Wong said Labor supported trade traditionally because it meant more jobs and better conditions for more Australians and backed stronger engagement with Asia.
But she said the ChAFTA “doesn’t include the safeguards which we think are necessary to maximise Australian jobs”.
“The whole point of trade is to try and generate more jobs and better working conditions for Australians and if you’ve got an agreement which doesn’t sufficiently do that then I think it’s legitimate for the Opposition to be saying we want some safeguards,” she said.
But Mr Taylor said Senator Wong’s fears were misguided because work-force protections were outlined in the ChAFTA.
“This is a dishonest campaign,” he said.
“The Labor party approved an Enterprise Migration Agreement (EMA) with Gina Rinehart on the same terms, as is in this agreement, so they are now running a fear campaign against the framework that they accepted whilst in government.
“This is dishonesty in the highest order it’s partisan politics being played at the expense of Australian farmers.
“Privately a number of Labor party people have told me they’re appalled at what’s going on.”
Mr Taylor said if the ChAFTA stalled many other countries around the world would be ready to supply beef, sheep meat, butter, cheese and wine to China.
“Everyone is beating a path to China’s door,” he said.
“If this reckless union scare campaign causes a delay and we don’t get the two planned tariff cuts in quick succession it will cost farmers hundreds of millions of dollars.
“It just beggars belief.”
Trade Minister Andrew Robb said the ChAFTA basically represented the same provisions Labor introduced under the EMA and under other FTAs, where they saw no need for market testing in regards to business executives and senior managers.
“Nothing is different,” he said.
“It is a misrepresentation.
“I’ve got to say, and it’s been driven by a union that is trying to maintain a semblance of relevance and is trying to exercise a diversion in the face of an onslaught of corruption claims.
“This agreement is a very strong one with China and I’ll work with Labor to demonstrate, in a bipartisan way, that these labour provisions are sound and will cover Australian workers.
“Why would we do otherwise?”
Value of China
China is Australia’s biggest market for agricultural exports valued at about $9 billion in 2013.
The ChAFTA will see 95pc of current import tariffs removed for Australian export products and preferential access.
Tariffs will be cut for all exported Australian dairy products, as high as 20 per cent, within four to 11 years and tariffs of 12 to 25pc on beef exports, over nine years.
Tariffs on sheepmeat of 12 to 23pc will be removed over eight years and tariffs of 14 to 20pc on wine will be phased out over four years, along with those on horticulture products, ranging up to 30pc.