House debates

Monday, 21 October 2019


Customs Amendment (Growing Australian Export Opportunities Across the Asia-Pacific) Bill 2019, Customs Tariff Amendment (Growing Australian Export Opportunities Across the Asia-Pacific) Bill 2019; Second Reading

4:43 pm

Photo of Sharon ClaydonSharon Claydon (Newcastle, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'm very pleased to rise in support of the amendment and to make a contribution to this debate this evening on the Customs Amendment (Growing Australian Export Opportunities Across the Asia-Pacific) Bill 2019 and the conjoined bill, the Customs Tariff Amendment (Growing Australian Export Opportunities Across the Asia-Pacific) Bill 2019. Importantly, these bills give effect to the government's proposed trade agreements with Indonesia, Hong Kong and Peru. In principle, Labor supports free trade. Indeed, we have a long history of doing so.

For a cautionary tale of how important free trade is, you need only look at the chaos and upheaval we've seen in recent months as a result of the current US-China trade wars. Reducing trade barriers opens up new markets, creates more competitive industries and delivers lower prices and greater choice for Australian consumers, but this should never come at the expense of protecting local jobs and the working conditions of Australian men and women—working conditions that have been hard-fought for and long secured in this nation by the collective actions of our union movement.

When we first saw what was being proposed by the government, Labor had a number of serious concerns. Firstly, we were profoundly worried that there was the potential for labour market testing to be waived for contract service suppliers in the future. Labour market testing is an absolutely fundamental protection for local workers. It ensures that, wherever possible, Australian jobs go to Australians. Of course, we have always understood that, where there are genuine skill shortages and a genuine incapacity to fill those positions with Australian workers, then opportunities and pathways are opened up to suitably trained and qualified people migrating to Australia or coming in on a number of visas to undertake that work. That has never been an issue. The point for Australian Labor members has been whether or not genuine market testing has been taking place in this country beforehand. We have seen numerous examples where that has been treated without the due respect that it should be given, by corporations and some businesses in Australia. As I said, labour market testing remains a fundamental protection for local workers and one that the Australian Labor Party is especially focused on.

But we were also worried that, unless the existing bilateral treaty with Indonesia was terminated, we would be left with antiquated ISDS provisions—that those antiquated provisions would have remained in force. And that was not in anyone's interest. Those sorts of outdated investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms are a direct attack on our national sovereignty. They provide a framework for multinational corporations to sue countries for implementing legislation that affects their profits. Let's not forget the attack that Philip Morris made on the Australian parliament and the Australian government for having the audacity to put the health of our citizens at the top of our priorities and to push for what were world-leading, ground-breaking laws at the time, that demanded plain packaging of tobacco products in Australia. So there are very good reasons for Australia to be concerned about outdated ISDS mechanisms.

Indeed, it must be said that, if Labor were in government, these are not the agreements that we would have been negotiating, but this is the reality that we are dealing with. We have bills before us—and, as I said, Labor has raised a number of concerns, many of which the government has made agreements on, and I will come to that in a moment. But it is clearly unconscionable to have those outdated ISDS mechanisms remain in situ, in any agreement, because of the implications that they have for our national sovereignty.

Labor wanted to ensure that it was clear that the new trade agreement with Indonesia would include modern safeguards, as well as a review of these ISDS operations after a five-year period. In order to address these matters, Labor's shadow minister for trade, the member for Brand, Madeleine King, wrote to the trade minister, outlining Labor's concerns. These include the issues I've just outlined, as well as protections for working holiday-makers and confirmation that nothing in the agreements would require the privatisation of government services, among other things. I'm very pleased that the government has agreed to all of these requests and I would like to congratulate the shadow minister for standing strong and achieving such a great outcome.

Importantly, the government has also agreed to an inquiry into the treaty-making process, to look at how we can improve transparency and increase consultation for further agreements. This is a critical issue for the Australian people. We need to lift any veil of secrecy of arrangements being made behind closed doors so that there is confidence always in the processes of government. Anything we can do to improve transparency and increase consultation for further agreements is absolutely worth prosecuting, and I'm glad that the government has agreed to at least having an inquiry into the mechanisms and pathways that we could make in order for this to improve, as I said, the transparency and the consultation process of future trade agreements.

I would like to thank the trade minister for working collaboratively with Labor to achieve a better outcome and a better deal, importantly, for Australian workers. That being said, there are still fundamental issues that we have with the way in which these agreements are negotiated. Given the far-reaching impacts that they have across our economy and, indeed, our workforce, the impacts of a bad deal are very dire indeed. I have met with many of my workers in Newcastle and their representative unions over the last few weeks and months and, indeed, last Friday back in Newcastle. They've expressed their serious concerns because there is a lack of trust in whether the government is going to put the working rights and conditions of Australian men and women at the forefront of their thoughts and there is a long history there to suggest that the rights of working men and women in Australia haven't always been front and centre of conservative governments' minds.

It must be said that, for a lot of Australians, their experience of a free trade agreement hasn't always been positive. I think we need to recognise that. We know that the benefits of these agreements have not been equally distributed throughout the community. And, again, there needs to be mindful attention paid by the government, irrespective of who's in power, as to how you remedy those kinds of inequities that can occur as a result of free trade agreements. I think, to this end, it is very disappointing that the government continues to reject Labor's request that mandatory independent economic modelling be done for these and future trade agreements because, without this, how can we possibly know whether these deals are good for our country and for our communities? There is little data, certainly little independent economic data, which we can turn to that would give greater confidence to Australian working men and women and their families that these agreements will, in fact, deliver some benefit to them and to their neighbouring communities. Labor will continue to prosecute the case for greater transparency, for greater analysis and oversight of all trade agreements to make sure that they are always in Australia's best interests and in the interests of business, workers and consumers alike.

I would like to end with a very serious issue that was raised with me by the ETU on Friday with regards to the increased prevalence of unlicensed electricians working in projects across multiple jurisdictions, across varying states and territories in Australia. This is not an issue that is directly relevant to the free trade agreements before us, except to say that there is a significant level of anxiety about the apparent incapacity for state and territory governments to enforce existing state and territory laws that would ensure that all workers, whether they be Australian workers, migrant workers or holidaymakers, are suitably trained and qualified to conduct work in Australia according to Australian standards and laws. As I said, this is an especially critical issue for electrical workers in Australia.

This is certainly an issue that Labor will continue to prosecute, because Australians everywhere have every right to expect that the people wiring our schools, our homes and our developments, for example, would be fully trained and qualified electricians in Australia. If that is not the case, it is a shameful state of affairs. But, let's be clear: that is not the result of free trade agreements; it is the result of the current incapacity of state and territory governments to enforce the existing laws that we have.

We should all be shouting very loudly at every opportunity to insist that these laws be enforced, that there are adequate provisions and—to borrow an expression from the government that is often used—there is an adequate 'cop on the beat' of our Australian workplace sites to ensure that Australian standards are being complied with. It is all very well for government members to be 'outraged' by union activity on worksites, but why don't we insist on inspecting the quality of work being done on these sites and ensure that workers have been adequately trained and supported on site and that there is no lessening of standards at any point, especially in such a critical area as electricity.

Labor will always stand up for the rights and protections of Australian working men and women. We will continue to hold the government to account for the concessions that the government has given on these free trade agreements. I note that the member for Brand, the shadow minister, has been in the chamber throughout this debate, and I welcome her presence and her earlier contribution. As I said before, Labor is absolutely adamant that Australian workers receive the due respect and protection that they should have; that we should have a stronger focus on the labour-market testing laws in Australia and ensure that they are the most rigorous they can be; and that Australian men and women are always given the priority they deserve in the workforce.


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