Talk, don’t shout, on China FTA: Shorten

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has accused the government of “shouting” rather than negotiating on the China-Australia free trade agreement.


But Prime Minister Tony Abbott says the weight of opinion, even within Labor ranks, is for the agreement to pass by November for the sake of the economy.

Two Labor premiers, Daniel Andrews and Jay Weatherill, ACT chief minister Andrew Barr, NSW Labor leader Luke Foley, as well as former federal ministers Simon Crean, Bob Carr and Martin Ferguson have thrown their weight behind the trade deal.

However, Mr Shorten says federal Labor wants to ensure workers coming to Australia on visas were not exploited and did not undercut local jobs.

“What we say to (Trade Minister) Andrew Robb is the ball is in your court – we are prepared to negotiate,” he told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday.

“The louder they shout at us, the more concerned I am that there is something not being dealt with on Australian jobs.”

One way forward being considered in Labor ranks are migration law changes – separate to the FTA enabling laws – which would make labour market testing mandatory.

Former trade minister Craig Emerson says the agreement as it stands does not require labour market testing to determine whether Australian workers are available before issuing visas to Chinese workers.

The Abbott government, rather than China, had insisted on leaving open the option of not requiring labour market testing on a case-by-case basis, he said.

“This is an agreement which is worth having … and there is a way through,” Dr Emerson said of the migration laws.

Customs legislation, which will enable the FTA, is due to be introduced to parliament in October, about the time a treaties committee report is tabled.

Mr Abbott told reporters in the West Australian seat of Canning if federal Labor and unions were serious about economic growth and jobs they would support the FTA.

“Quite frankly, Bill Shorten is playing fast and loose with our future – this free trade agreement sets Australia up for decades to come,” he said.

Mr Weatherill has said state legislation is “ample” to ensure the SA workforce and SA safeguards were applied to any project built in the state.

Another South Australian, independent senator Nick Xenophon, has concerns about the deal, and says there are questions over labour market testing and investor-state dispute settlement clauses.

“I don’t think this is a good deal if you have a very clinical look at the text of the deal,” he said.

Business Council chief Jennifer Westacott said the concerns about safeguards were unnecessary.

“Australia is on the verge of kicking a massive own goal if ChAFTA is not ratified,” she said in a statement, adding the peak body was prepared to “campaign hard” to see it delivered.

Mr Foley said Mr Shorten was “right to be examining the detail” but should support the agreement.

“I hope the federal government and opposition will reach agreement on the detail – that’s in the national interest,” he said.

Treasurer Joe Hockey warned China’s patience was “wearing thin”.