Thursday, 13 September 2018
Customs Amendment (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership Implementation) Bill 2018, Customs Tariff Amendment (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership Implementation) Bill 2018; Second Reading
The trickle-down troika is back. The Liberal Party, the Labor Party and big business are working hand in glove to give big corporations more rights at the expense of everyday people. I expect, from this shambolic Liberal government, nothing less than an attempt to give corporations more rights, to take away requirements to advertise locally first before you bring in someone from elsewhere for a job, and to go and reward a government that is on the verge of backing out of international whaling agreements and starting again. I expect nothing less from the Liberal-National government. But what may come as a surprise to many people is that this blueprint to give corporations more rights over governments and people is now being cheered through and waved through by the Labor Party in this place.
We're at a time when we've now got the opportunity to say, 'We've got to go back and renegotiate some of the terrible provisions in this agreement.' They are provisions that contravene the Labor Party's policy, and we even have members of the Labor Party here moving amendments to say, 'We don't like the things that are in these agreements,' at the very moment that we have the opportunity to say, 'We want better treatment.' But what is happening is that this bill is being brought on for debate, and the Labor Party is cheering it through.
'Trade deals' sounds innocuous. You're reaching an agreement with someone else to allow for greater trade. But what is not said in that is that these things aren't really trade deals. They're agreements about how corporations and governments are allowed to relate to each other. They're agreements that say that corporations, in many instances—including multinational corporations—have more rights than the Australian government. Corporations will be able to tell the Australian government what to do if the Australian government ever tries to pass legislation for the benefit of its people. If the Australian government, under these deals, starts to pass legislation that might affect the profits of some of these corporations because we decide it might be in our interest to, for example, require the local advertising of jobs before allowing someone else to come in from overseas, or if we start passing laws to protect our environment or start passing laws to protect public health because we think we want to look after the Australian people, corporations will be able to sue the Australian government in a secret panel where a few people get together—not a big court; a secret panel where a few people get together—and the decisions of that secret panel will be binding. What that means is that this parliament loses its right to govern to protect the Australian people.
These clauses are so bad that they're off the table for the upcoming EU negotiations. The EU is not going to ask for these clauses to be in any agreement that might be signed with Australia. Jacinda Ardern, in New Zealand, has had the good sense to negotiate side arrangements so that those clauses don't apply over there. The Labor Party said at its conference, 'These clauses are bad and we don't like them.' But they're in this agreement that the Customs Amendment (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership Implementation) Bill 2018 is about to bring into effect.
These clauses have been used by corporations to sue governments because governments have, for example, tried to take steps to make drugs more affordable or tried to do things to restrict corporations in their treatment of the environment. That's how these clauses are being used. As I say, New Zealand has said, 'We don't want a bar of them,' and they're not going to be in the EU agreements. So why on earth would we now sign up to them, knowing full well what it could mean for the Australian public?
Not only that; these agreements, like the agreements before them that Labor waved through as part of the trickle-down troika, say that certain countries—and in this case we're talking about Canada, Mexico, Chile, Japan, Malaysia and Vietnam—get a free pass from the laws that exist in Australia that say you need to advertise locally first. They get an exemption. We are now carving out loopholes in our labour laws that are big enough to fly plane loads of exploited workers through.
What we are seeing at the moment, under the agreements we've got, is that these deals not only put downward pressure on wages for local workers but lead to exploitation of overseas workers as well. Overseas workers come in on visas. They get brought in with the promise, 'You'll earn more than in your home country'—and who can fault people for sticking up their hands and saying, 'Yes, I'll go and work somewhere and earn a bit more money'?—but what happens when they come here is that the employers in many instances say: 'Right, we've got you here. If you arc up, we'll withdraw your permission to be here and you'll be on the next plane back. When you are here, you will accept whatever conditions that we want to impose on you.'
As a result we see in Hobart a couple of hundred people working in some instances on public works projects on below-legal wages and conditions. We've seen it in Victoria, in Western Australia and right around the country. In Victoria, on the electricity network—and you would think that, if there's anything called 'a project for the public good', it would be our electricity infrastructure—people brought in from overseas to work on maintaining the electricity network are getting paid below what the going rate is and are being exploited. It is all, in many instances, facilitated by these agreements.
Whatever requirements might be put in place in Australian labour law to restrict exploitation, these countries get a free pass. Australia will not be able to legislate to say, for example, 'We want to advertise locally first.' It is leading to exploitation right now of local workers and overseas workers, and it's why other countries say, 'We want the right to regulate that.' We are about to sign it away, and the Labor Party is about to sign it away.
The previous speaker, the member for Parkes, said—and put aside the advertising point—'Don't worry; at least everyone who comes in will be required to have the same level of skills.' That is just not right. That is not how the skills-testing system works in this country at the moment. In many instances, when people come in here, it's a paper based assessment that is often tick and flick. There's no systematic requirement to vet everyone who comes in to ensure that they're trained up to the same standard. You look at the paperwork and you take the word of the sponsor who's bringing them in. That's not good enough either. That's why, in many instances, what has been uncovered is people who, we would say, aren't trained to the same level locally. We need a thorough overhaul of that. What we're being told is that it's okay; this new agreement won't change it. That's not the point. The point is the system at the moment is thoroughly inadequate. People have been pointing to problems in it for a very long time. What are we going to do? We're now going to expand the number of people and the size of the loopholes through which people can pass.
When this TPP was negotiated, we were also told at the beginning that there were going to be seven enforceable international environmental agreements as part of it. So it's all right, we will still be able to protect the environment; corporations won't have greater power over the environment. When we saw the text of the agreement, it only mentioned four, and it turns out that only one of them has any enforceable commitments in it. Climate change is not mentioned anywhere. There are no environmental benchmarks in these agreements. That means that in the future when the Australian government legislate—once we've turfed this rotten mob out and potentially get a government that wants to act on climate change and protect the environment—they can't simply consider what would be good for the Australian people and the planet; we now have to go off and check this blueprint for the corporate takeover of democracy. We have to check these agreements to see whether we might offend a multinational corporation if we were to do something to cut out pollution or protect the environment. If so, maybe we can't do it, because we signed up to a deal that allows a corporation and a secret panel of lawyers to veto what this parliament might want to do.
It's not just our future environmental laws, but even our future labour laws. There's lots of talk at the moment about how the system is broken and we need to change the rules. This might stop us changing the rules in the way that we need to, because we will have to make sure, before we change those rules, that it doesn't affect the profits of someone who might have a claim under one of these agreements. That is wrong. That is why people are increasingly angry at governments, because they see governments signing away our rights to big corporations. This another example.
That is why the Greens have consistently opposed these kinds of agreements that go beyond a simple agreement with another country to say, 'Let's trade more together,' which in and of itself isn't objectionable. They attach all these other things that restrict what governments can do. It's because of that that we have stood firm against them. You've got the Greens saying this; you've got unions saying this; you've got civil society groups, environment groups, NGOs all saying this. You've even got the Productivity Commission—hardly well-known ideological allies of the Greens—saying that it's often hard to see what benefit these agreements deliver to the Australian public. What we need to do at the very least, before we sign up to this, is to have an assessment of it so that we're not just being asked to take the claims of the Labor and Liberal parties at face value, so we actually see some evidence that it's going to help not just corporations but also the Australian people. That sounds like a pretty sensible idea. I would have thought the government, if they thought this was such a cracker of an agreement, would say: 'Look at the research. We've undertaken a big Productivity Commission analysis of it. Look at the amazing benefits.' There is none of that. It's just, 'Take it on our word that handing over your rights to big corporations is somehow going to be of benefit to you.'
And this all happens in the context, as I've said before, that right now one of the parties to this agreement is in a position of wanting to restart whaling. They have already pulled out of the International Court of Justice, but now they want to be able to say, 'We want to go back to having full commercial whaling.' The Australian government should be holding them to account and saying: 'We've got some minimum standards, and if you want to do a deal with us that's about increasing economic activity, there are certain things we want in return. There are certain minimum standards we expect.' As we've already heard, some of those things have been the subject of these negotiations, like asking some other countries to perhaps try to at least say they will lift their labour standards. We've now got a great opportunity to say to Japan, 'This agreement is so important to you, but it's repugnant to the Australian people that you restart whaling, and we can't in good faith sign up to an agreement that increases economic activity between our two countries if part of your definition of economic activity involves killing whales.' But instead of standing up to them, we are rewarding them. This government is rewarding them and saying: 'It's all right, we're going to turn a blind eye to it. We're quite happy to give you a pat on the back and reward you by handing over a big fat reward.' That is reprehensible to many people.
There's absolutely no reason to rush ahead with this, especially in the context of so many people saying there are such big problems with it. We could park this until a better deal is negotiated. We could park this until we get the kinds of protections that Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, has negotiated for her people. Park this until labour rights are better. Park this until we remove the ability of governments to be sued by corporations just because they happen to stand up for their people. That's what the Greens will be pushing for. We expect this from the Liberals, but the Labor Party stands condemned today because it's very crystal clear that, no matter what their policy is, they will vote for big business every time.