SUBJECTS: Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement; free trade agreements; Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT); Indonesia; Hong Kong; Industrial Relations; ISDS clauses; GST; Mike Kelly; freedom of the press; freedom of information laws; climate change.
MADELEINE KING, SHADOW MINISTER FOR TRADE: Good afternoon, thanks for coming along. Today the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party is supporting these free trade agreements that are in the interest of Australian workers and Australian jobs. Australians right around the country will have opportunities to participate in further work. More jobs, more exports, mean greater industries, stronger industries and Australia benefits. Steelmakers benefit – cattle industry – it benefits many agricultural industries, including the grain industry. These free trade agreements, especially the one with Indonesia, will benefit higher education service providers and vocational service providers. All the way through these negotiations with the Government, Labor has been determined to protect workers’ rights and to protect those workers in this country that have been exploited in the past. We want this to stop; we want worker exploitation to stop. And we have today got commitments from the Government that they will take action in this regard. With that, I’ll hand over to Anthony.
ANTHONY ALBANESE, LEADER OF THE AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY: Thanks very much, Madeleine. We said at the outset of this process that we were determined to protect the rights of Australian workers and to protect Australian jobs. We were prepared to be constructive because we understood that Australia is a trading nation; that one in five jobs of Australians depend upon trade. And these agreements will be good, Now that they’ve been fixed up as a result of our suggestions that have been adopted by the Government; I want to say that Simon Birmingham has been very constructive about this, and we wanted to make sure that we were in a position to support these agreements going forward, to support Australian jobs. I want to go through some of the measures that have been agreed. Firstly, we wanted to terminate the old bilateral agreement that is currently in place – that everyone agrees provides for less protections for workers than what is included in this comprehensive economic partnership with Indonesia. It’s a particularly important recommendation of JSCOT and the Government has agreed to pursue this option. Secondly, they’ll be reviewing other older style bilateral agreements to make sure that improvements are received. Thirdly, there’ll be a review of the ISDS provisions in the Indonesian Agreement after five years; to make sure that they’re operating as they should be – that there isn’t any unintended consequences which the Government says it does not support. Fourthly, importantly, there are no new labour market testing waivers in this agreement. Fifthly, to bring forward legislation to introduce criminal penalties for worker exploitation. This is the first time that the Government has committed to that. We need to take action to protect Australian workers; as a result of our constructive attitude we’ve achieved this breakthrough with the Government ‘s commitment to do that as a matter of urgency. Next; working holiday makers must be qualified for the jobs in which they do. Next; no privatisation as a result of these agreements, and what’s more, no restrictions on acquiring public assets either, in these agreements. With regard to the Hong Kong agreement, we’ve secured agreement to continue to monitor the circumstances in Hong Kong consistent with our approach of ‘One country, two systems’. And, obviously, the issues with regard to Hong Kong are ongoing. We’ve also received a commitment that JSCOT will have a separate inquiry into treaty making with economic modelling; transparency; and consultation processes all considered. This is something that we have argued should occur with regard to these treaty proposals. So, in conclusion, this is not an agreement that Labor would have made; we would have made different provisions. But it is an agreement that the Government has put forward and one in which, overall, provides benefits for Australian workers; Australian jobs; and for our national economy. Which is why Labor will be supporting these three agreements on the floor of the Parliament – or at least supporting the enabling legislation. We will distribute the commitments, which are in writing, from the Minister to the journalists, so that they’re made public and that is with the agreement of the Government as well. So, no new labour market testing; equal treatment under industrial relations laws; and, importantly, licencing and registrations required under Australian law. Which should make it very clear to those professions who have had concerns that somehow there would be an undermining of these conditions as a result of these agreements are satisfied. Happy to take questions.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, what’s your message now to the trade unions who are still opposed to these deals and who were talking tough on Friday about fighting Labor?
ALBANESE: These agreements will create Australian jobs. There’s incredible opportunities for Australians to benefit as Indonesia, in particular, grows to the fourth largest economy in the world. This will directly create jobs in Port Kembla, in steel, as a result of these agreements. This will directly create jobs in Northern Australia; in Western Australia; and in Queensland – in agriculture and grain, in the cattle industry. This will directly create jobs for Australian infrastructure providers – for service providers – as a result of the growth that will occur. Indonesia is building a new national capital that will require engineers, architects, Australian steel to be as part of that. It will require Australian jobs to be created. And put simply, the two-way difference here is Indonesia into Australia benefits from two per cent of tariffs being removed. Australia-Indonesia benefits with 25 per cent of goods and services now made tariff free as a result of this agreement.
JOURNALIST: Do these changes, though, fix a key union concern, which is wage theft? And what do you say to criticism that Labor supporting the Government on these deals is actually pushing Labor – pushing Labor voters towards Pauline Hanson?
ALBANESE: No. Have a look at the provisions which are there, which are the Australian Industrial Relations laws – will be provided. And with regard to wage theft, what the Government‘s agreed, as a result of Labor’s request, is for provisions to come in, including criminal prosecutions.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, you said that these are not the agreements that Labor would have made. What are the deficiencies in these agreements as you see it?
ALBANESE: We would have had very much up front – as part of agreements – the issues of labour market testing being addressed. We wouldn’t have had to have had these discussions with the Government. Labor does not support ISDS provisions. One of the things that we have, though, is that – and this is agreed by the people in the trade union movement that I’ve met with – is that these agreements are better than the current system provided for under the bilateral agreements. No one has said to me that this agreement is a step backwards. No one has said that. And what we’re about in this building, in the imperfect world where we’re not the Government, is getting practical steps forward which advance the interests of workers and advance the interests of jobs.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, where does this leave the Party’s national platform? Do you believe that it needs to be changed, or will you maintain it as it is, so that you go to the next election promising not to support agreements such as this with ISDS clauses?
ALBANESE: There is no breach of the Party’s platform in this agreement. Of course, Labor does not get to vote on the agreement. That’s a decision of the Cabinet and Labor Party members’ aren’t members of the Cabinet, even though we’re trying to create one at the moment in a different sphere.
JOURNALIST: If you are in government it will remain Labor position and Labor policy that you won’t support free trade agreements that contain ISDS clauses?
ALBANESE: Labor’s National Conference will be held at the end of next year, and it’s up to the Labor Party – not just myself – I’ll be a delegate to that conference. But, they are robust affairs, they’re broadcast live, they’re transparent, and everyone will get to see those processes. Hang on, one at a time.
JOURNALIST: Do you have a view on whether or not the GST base should be widened? Some of the states are arcing up that it should be widened at the moment.
ALBANESE: I certainly am not a supporter of expanding regressive taxes.
JOURNALIST: Would you seek to renegotiate these agreements in government?
ALBANESE: The agreements will have, in terms of the Indonesia agreement, when it’s ratified it’s been agreed that there will be a five year review, and also the JSCOT inquiry will be really important, I think. That’s a breakthrough to have an inquiry specifically into these processes. I don’t think these processes of treaty making are transparent enough. I think that the community and in particular workers and unions should have the prospect of more input into the development of these free trade agreements – people who are impacted by it. At the moment, of course, the decisions are made by the Cabinet and without appropriate input. I want to see more transparency in the processes.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese, there are three other free trade agreements on the horizon: The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP); The EU Free Trade Deal and the post-Brexit negotiations with the UK. They’re much bigger deals, is …
ALBANESE: They’re not quite through Brexit the way that I’ve seen it.
JOURNALIST: That’s certainly on the radar. Is Labor’s default position now to support free trade deals and does the decision today set that sort of precedent?
ALBANESE: Labor’s position is to support jobs and worker’s rights.
JOURNALIST: One of the key concerns raised by unions was the potential for Chapter 12 to allow future agreements that would give access to contractual service providers. What assurances have you been given by the Minister that that won’t be allowed?
ALBANESE: That’s been fixed as well; I’ll read it out to you very specifically, that has been addressed by the Minister – just to clear it up – the letter from Minister Birmingham says: “not to use the provisions of Article 12.9 or any other provisions of the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement to propose, create, or extend any additional labour market testing waivers for Indonesian contractual service suppliers.” I think that’s pretty clear. That was one of our clear demands. And to be explicit – everything we asked for the Government agreed to. I don’t say that as in terms of, we obviously had discussions with the Government to ensure these provisions. There’s no doubt that the timing of the Prime Minister’s visit to Indonesia, to President Widodo’s Inauguration, was part of the factors. He wanted to be in a position to be able to give a positive response to the President. It is in Australia’s interests that Australia have a good relationship with Indonesia. And can I say this: you’ve always good to look at the counterfactual – what are the circumstances whereby this Parliament, which has free trade agreements with China; with Korea; and Japan; says: ‘we’re going to fly over Indonesia and not have an agreement with you’? Indonesia, a democratic nation to our north, one that has the largest number of Muslims of any country in the world, one which will grow to the fourth largest economy in the world. Paul Keating created a very close relationship with Indonesia; that is in Australia’s interests. And this agreement is in Australia’s national interest.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese there’s been plenty of rumour around this building for a while, and it got aired on Insiders yesterday, about the possibility of Mike Kelly pulling the pin at the end of the year. Have you spoken to Mr Kelly about that? Do you have any awareness of that …
ALBANESE: Mike Kelly will be here for a long time. He is an important member of the team. He does a great job, both in terms of bringing his expertise in defence matters to our team; but he is also an outstanding local member for Eden-Monaro. And I’m not surprised that the Coalition would like to see the back of him. In order to do that, they’re going to have to beat him in an election.
JOURNALIST: There are six demands that media companies are calling for today, including the ability to contest warrants searching journalists or media organisations’ homes. Have you managed to look at the six reforms they’re calling for, and will Labor back them? Could they back them by the end of the year?
ALBANESE: I haven’t looked at all of the reforms, but that’s something which I’ve supported in the past and is consistent with views that I’ve held. Can I say very clearly: journalism is not a crime. The idea that people should be prosecuted for doing their job, for informing Australians of what is going on in their country. People have a right to know. And one of the ways, imperfect as it is with media organisations, which from time to time we’ll all regard as not being perfect. That’s the system. It’s the best system we have. And it’s an important and necessary component of our democracy. Just as, might I say, the freedom of association through belonging to trade unions is also an important part of our democracy.
JOURNALIST: So how would freedom of information laws for example, be better under an Albanese Government, what would you do?
ALBANESE: What’s happened over a period of time – let’s be clear about the context of these raids. Over a period of time you had the Government consciously have a strategy to say: ‘we’re not going to tell you what is going on’ – On ‘On Water’ matters and on other things. That, I think, has drifted dangerously into a sphere whereby when the Prime Minister is asked questions, he refuses to answer them. Now, some of those, frankly, are ones that I find inexplicable of why for example, the right of people to know whether Mr Houston was invited to the State Dinner, I don’t understand why that shouldn’t be answered, and I’m sure it’ll be pursued in Senate estimates. But it seems to me that we need to not take freedom of the press for granted. We need to examine whatever changes are needed to ensure that it’s there. But circumstances whereby three people, two from the ABC and one from News Limited, still have the threat of criminal prosecution hanging over them for doing their job is, in my view, unacceptable.
JOURNALIST: On the laws of defamation, are you concerned that they’ve become a plaything for the rich and powerful, in some cases the super rich?
ALBANESE: I think that defamation laws are a good constraint on ensuring that there’s some level of accuracy. I say that as someone who’s never used them but has, I think, had a good case on a few occasions. So I think defamation laws are important. But the other issues of freedom of the press are very important as well, including issues like freedom of information over a period of time. Labor, when we were in Government, tried to go down the track of greater freedom of information laws, but more transparent, particularly under the work that John Faulkner did. And I think it is it is important that the public have a right to know information which affects them.
JOURNALIST: That, actually, my question was about to touch on freedom of information. Because we have seen documents released under Labor Governments which are completely blacked out. So hasn’t Labor sometimes been just as bad as the Coalition on that? And did your last remark suggest that in the future Labor would look again at freeing up some of the freedom of information laws to make them more suitable to, or better for, citizens?
ALBANESE: Well, I was a Minister for six years. I’m not aware of any document I ever distributed or was distributed from my department such as what you say. So all I can do is point towards my record on these issues.
JOURNALIST: Mr Albanese this morning Labor introduced its Climate Emergency declaration motion. You were criticised for only having five MPs in the House. The vote was deferred. How can you expect the public to take that motion seriously and see it as something that’s not just an empty gesture when Labor itself has almost buried it since the announcement last week?
ALBANESE: Well Private Members Business, that’s what happens in the Parliament. You know, people have meetings in this building. We were receiving the letters from Simon Birmingham and dealing with that. I contacted the ACTU out of respect for their position. That’s appropriate. Go in there now, see how many people are there.
JOURNALIST: Is it that much of an emergency if no one is there?
ALBANESE: Well, the idea that an issue’s importance is determined by how many people in the chamber I don’t think stands up to scrutiny or consistency. And if you consistently want to argue that, then there’s a whole lot of things that the Government does when it introduces legislation, there is normally two Government members there. That doesn’t mean that that legislation is not important. I said he’d go first and then I’ve got to actually go and speak on the legislation.
JOURNALIST: Yesterday the Prime Minister said that journalists shouldn’t expect a leave pass from the law. Do you think that the underlying laws therefore need to change so that’s not the situation?
JOURNALIST: One of the key demands of Labor was the revocation of the 1993 bilateral agreement with Indonesia. The letter from the Minister just says to review it and, where possible, seek to replace it. You could sort of drive a truck through that?
ALBANESE: No. Well, that’s not right. It’s because it has to have the agreement of Indonesia as well.
JOURNALIST: Right. What if they don’t agree?
ALBANESE: Well, it has to have agreement with Indonesia as well. Those discussions, I’m sure, have been advanced, but it’s not surprising as a matter of courtesy that the Australian Government on a bilateral agreement would put forward that that issue they addressed in the form of words which are there. I regard that as a matter of courtesy. I am certain that it will be withdrawn with the agreement of Indonesia as well as Australia. I think the Trade Minister has just put forward the sort of diplomatic language which frankly, I’ve argued in other circumstances, should be used when we’re dealing with our neighbours. Thanks very much.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.