24 July 2015




SENATOR PENNY WONG, LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION IN THE SENATE: Thanks very much. I wanted to have a discussion with you about the very constructive and important debate we had today about trade. And the approach that Labor took today, and the approach that we will take when it comes to trade in Government and also in Opposition in relation to the China Free Trade Agreement.

I want to start with this proposition: Tony Abbott thinks trade deals are about his own political fortunes. Whereas for Labor, trade is about jobs and growth. For Labor, trade is about jobs and growth.

It is about greater prosperity for working people. We have made clear today in the debate that our support for trade, whether you go back to Whitlam, the Hawke and Keating years, or of course the trade reforms negotiated in the Rudd and Gillard Governments, our support has always been grounded in jobs, in growth and the opportunities trade brings.

We support a free trade agreement with China but it has to be a high quality agreement. And the deal that Andrew Robb brought back from Beijing is not a high quality deal. So what Labor committed to today, what Labor’s National Conference backed today, is Labor’s fight for the best trade agreement with China. Labor’s fight for the best trade agreement with China.

So, when the enabling legislation comes before the Parliament, we will seek to ensure that critical safeguards that Andrew Robb took out are there, including labour market testing and mandatory skills assessment. And in government, today we’ve also committed to review of the Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions, not only in the China Free Trade Agreement but more generally, because as the Chief Justice of the High Court has said, as many Australians have said, we shouldn’t have a situation where foreign companies have greater rights than Australian companies, and the Government shouldn’t be agreeing to these provisions in the agreement. I am happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Just on the ISDS, haven’t you committed to more than review them? Haven’t you committed to ultimately get rid of them? And has Labor previously included ISDS provisions in any free trade deals?

WONG: Labor from, I think it was 2011, made clear in our platform that we would not seek to include ISDS in any trade agreement. Obviously, historically over a number of decades, these were included in investment agreements. But I think the problem with them has become very clear, particularly with the Philip Morris action under an ISDS. I think Australians are rightly concerned about them.

What we’ve said is we’ll take a responsible approach. We will review those clauses in government, we will seek to remove them in consultation with our trading partners. Obviously, we’ve also said we would seek to reform the private arbitration system. I think that is very sensible and responsible policy. Mr Coorey.

JOURNALIST: Senator Wong, you’ve said previously, you don’t intend to block this agreement, you’re just trying to change it. Andrew Robb has said that in no way he is going to change a word.  If neither side refuses to blink, would you allow this through and seek amend it once in government?

WONG: My complete focus in on ensuring we get a better agreement, we get the safeguards that Andrew Robb should have included. And what I would say to Andrew Robb and to Tony Abbott is this: Australians have always accepted and supported trade because we have understood it is about Australian jobs. The questions that Australians are now raising about your agreement are reasonable and instead of throwing a tantrum frankly, every time someone says there is a problem with this agreement and yelling at them, which seems to be the approach Mr Robb takes, he should be explaining to people why he has removed critical safeguards. Ultimately, Australians support trade if they know that governments are committed to creating and protecting Australians jobs. The problem is that this trade agreement that Andrew Robb has brought home lacks some critical safeguards.

JOURNALIST: Just on the ISDS, can I just seek some clarification on the ISDS, if you don’t get it removed from the agreement, would you support it?

WONG: The resolution on the ISDS is a more general resolution than the China Free Trade Agreement. It says in government we will review provisions in existing trade and investment agreements, and to work with our trading partners to remove these and also commits us to a reform of the private arbitration ISDS tribunal system. I think that is a very constructive way of dealing with the problem that ISDS has created-

JOURNALIST: -It lacks clarity though, doesn’t it, when it comes to Parliamentary debate?

WONG: Well, hang on, let me finish. Has created in relation to the international trade architecture. But what I’d say to you is this: we have clearly backed today, Labor has clearly backed our fight for the best trade agreement we can with China. And I would say to you that we have taken a responsible position, a position that recognises that Australian support for trade is fundamentally reliant upon trade creating Australian jobs. The agreement that Andrew Robb brought home fails to do that.

JOURNALIST: Senator, the Left is meeting at the moment, there’s a distinct lack of clarity about whether or not a motion will be put that will expressly forbid Labor performing, permitting turn back operations when returned to government. What is your personal view, as a senior member of the Left-

WONG: -Well, I’m not in the meeting that is currently-

JOURNALIST: -I know. What is your personal view?

WONG: As Richard Marles has said, this issue was discussed at Shadow Cabinet and the Leadership Group. I put my personal view there and I don’t propose to canvass discussions in Leadership Group or Shadow Cabinet. I didn’t do that in government and I’m not going to do that in opposition.

JOURNALIST: Other members of the Shadow Cabinet have, however, made their position fairly clear.

WONG: This is a hard policy area, and what I would say to you all, and I know everyone likes to reduce politics to very simple propositions, but there are good people on both sides of this debate, there are people of good conscience on both sides of this debate. No one wants to see more people die at sea. A key issue is obviously can turn backs be done safely, are they consistent with international obligations. The Abbott Government says both of those conditions are being met, but they’re not actually prepared to tell Australians how. I think that is really unacceptable.

JOURNALIST: So, you effectively have no position (inaudible)

WONG: I said I put my views in Shadow Cabinet. I don’t propose to-

JOURNALIST: -Has Shadow Cabinet actually reached a Shadow Cabinet position?

WONG: The matter was discussed in Shadow Cabinet and that’s where I put my position.

JOURNALIST: Senator, on the Free Trade Agreement, do you propose to have discussions with the crossbenchers or would you prefer to try and strike a deal with the Government?

WONG: I’m always happy to talk to Mr Robb. I’m not sure the Abbott Government has made much of an effort to engage with anyone in the Parliament about any of the trade agreements. They seem to think they roll out a lot of flags and make an announcement and everybody is supposed to be happy and anybody who asks about an agreement somehow is labelled in rather unflattering terms, even when those people on their own side.

I’m always happy to have a conversation with the Government and what I would say to them is: there is an opportunity here to ensure a trade agreement that has the critical safeguards yours lacks and you should engage constructively with the Opposition, as well as the crossbenchers to achieve that.

JOURNALIST: Senator, can you just outline exactly what you would have liked to see in that trade agreement?

WONG: Sure, and there will be a lot more discussion about this in weeks and months to come. Please recall that we are actually in a very early stage in terms of Parliamentary consideration of this agreement. There’s two Parliamentary Committees, including the Joint Standing Committee and the Senate Committee Inquiry into this, and you will see the detail of Labor’s approach, I can assure you of that, in coming weeks and months.

I think the two key issues, fundamentally the policy proposition is this agreement could have done more to both create and protect Australian jobs. It is quite clear, despite what Andrew Robb says, that the what’s called the IFAs, to enter an IFA you do not have to demonstrate that you have engaged in what’s called labour market testing, that is: to ensure that no other Australian could do the job and I think the agreement lacks critical safeguards when it comes to skills assessment for occupations such as electricians. There are two examples specifically.

JOURNALIST: Senator, as a member of Shadow Cabinet were you expecting a position on boat turn backs to have been announced between the discussion that you refer to and the start of Labor Conference?

WONG: The Leader has made his announcement and I’m certainly not going to canvass discussions at Shadow Cabinet.

JOURNALIST: Senator, just back on trade again, last Friday an official from the Chinese Foreign Ministry told us at the Financial Review that if you alter this agreement they’re going to be seeking the right to renegotiate other aspects of it. Is that something that worries you, or do you just think Beijing is bluffing?

WONG: Look, we look forward to discussing with the representatives of the Chinese Government, with whom we engage as the official Opposition, our approach on these and to clarify the way forward.

JOURNALIST: In regards to the Japanese Free Trade deal and the submarines, there has been a lot of discussion about that, you were on the Committee regarding that, and the shipbuilding, naval shipbuilding. What’s going to happen there?

WONG: It’s a very good question and I think this is an area of policy where we see not only a  broken promise from the Prime Minister,  but an abject disregard for the importance of Australian jobs. This Prime Minister appears to believe Australian jobs are not a priority and whether it is building submarines in Australia, which he promised to do and now has walked away from that promise, or more certainty to our shipbuilders, this Prime Minister clearly is not standing up for Australian jobs.

We are seeing shipyards laying off workers around Australia because of this Government’s inaction. We have seen the Prime Minister walk away from his clear promise before the last election to build submarines in Adelaide, in Australia.

JOURNALIST: Just on the China Free Trade Agreement again, as it is currently drafted Chinese workers would still have to be paid Australian wages and conditions. What specifically are you concerned about, the potential for them to be exploited?

WONG: I think you have seen, the requirement that people be paid the legal minimum already exists in relation to our temporary migration visa workers. You would have seen on other media outlets and through the Senate Committee, that we already see in practice the undercutting of wages and conditions, and the exploitation of migrant workers as a result of people coming in under temporary migration.

Now, you’re correct, that’s a broader problem that just the China Free Trade Agreement, the same problem will persist and really the Government needs to clean up the temporary migration arrangements when it comes to the exploitation of Australian workers, both in relation to the China FTA, and more generally.

JOURNALIST: What’s this deal going to do to worsen the situation (inaudible)?

WONG: This deal does a number of things, the two I have pointed to is, I think it’s very clear on the text of the agreement that you can enter what’s called an IFA, an Investment Facilitation Agreement without labour market testing. And it certainly removes labour market testing in relation to a much larger category of workers than I think was wise.

JOURNALIST: Boat turn backs have quickly become the biggest issue of this conference. Are you saying that as one of the most senior members of the Labor Party you’re not going to publicly announce your personal position?

WONG: I’m saying two things. I’m saying I don’t propose to canvass my vote ahead of the vote this Saturday. And I’m saying my personal view was put in Shadow Cabinet and I don’t discuss what happens at Shadow Cabinet.

JOURNALIST: Senator on the ISDA-


JOURNALIST: ISDS, yes.  Is there any form of ISDS that is acceptable to Labor with carve outs to the certain sectors, be they health, PBS-

WONG: -Sure. There’s no doubt that an ISDS that has more carve outs that protect a greater range of policy areas is better than one that doesn’t. That’s a self evident proposition. But I think they are bad policy. What we’ve agreed to today is a realistic proposition about how we would work through the fact they already exist in trade agreements and how we would work with our trading partners to seek to remove them.

JOURNALIST: So there’s a prospect of you allowing ISDS as an opposition if you have carve outs?

WONG: As an Opposition, I’ve said for a while we’ll assess trade agreements on their merits and in relation to the China Free Trade Agreement, I made clear today some of our concerns with that.

JOURNALIST: Penny, the FTA has a two year review period.

WONG: Yes, it does.

JOURNALIST: Should you be successful, would you like to change it as part of that review process?

WONG: I think that a Labor Government, if we were given the honour of being returned to government, we would absolutely look at ways in which we could improve the trade agreements this Government struck.

Thanks very much.