ABC NATIONAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT, GREG JENNETT: Well, Pat Conroy, Labor’s been working through its process on these free trade agreements with Peru, Hong Kong and Indonesia. What exactly is the decision that you have reached?
PAT CONROY: Caucus has decided that we will support these three free trade agreements. We think they are in the economic interests of Australia and we think that they can provide jobs and support jobs in the Australian economy. Importantly, we’re saying to the Government that we think we can improve on them; that there are additional safeguards that should be agreed to by the Government to protect Australian workers and to avoid exploitation of backpackers. And that’s really important that people know that we can improve these agreements.
JENNETT: OK, so your team, through the Leader Anthony Albanese and through Madeleine King, who’s responsible for trade, are going to do what?
CONROY: So, Shadow Minister King has written to her counterpart Simon Birmingham and said let’s work together on these key issues. We think that we need to put in place additional safeguards to protect Australian workers and Australian jobs. We are seeking assurances to make sure than any additional backpackers coming into the country are not exploited and are appropriately qualified. And we’re seeking the termination of the Indonesian Bilateral Investment Treaty that is superseded by this agreement and has provisions that actually undermine Australian sovereignty.
JENNETT: Some of these are no-brainers aren’t they? Isn’t it already pretty much a given that that old investment agreement with Indonesia would in fact expire and be replaced by this more comprehensive agreement? I mean, some of these things, you’re sort of pushing against an open door, because they’re going to be agreed to, aren’t they?
CONROY: Well, the Government hasn’t agreed to that one, for example. The Labor members of the Joint Treaties Committee recommended that the Government commit to terminating that agreement and so far they have refused, which is inconsistent, given the older bilateral investment treaties are terminated for Peru and Hong Kong. This is really important, because if we don’t get the bilateral investment treaty terminated, Indonesian companies can forum shop and potentially undermine Australian sovereignty.
JENNETT: Alright, and under that scenario, if you don’t get what you want, what you’re asking the Government to do, what is Labor’s position then? Do you support or not support these agreements?
CONROY: We are going to be fighting very hard to get them and I’m very confident we will secure those concessions. And we are supporting the treaty, because all the free trade agreements are in Australia’s interests. They can be improved, and we are seeking the Government to clarify certain mechanisms to make them even better.
JENNETT: Because, you’ve got breathing down your neck here your own union constituency, some who have jumped out of the blocks today and heavily criticised Labor’s decision making process. After all, you are technically in breach of your own platform here in supporting some of these initiatives, particularly a free trade agreement with what they call the investor state dispute processes in them.
CONROY: This decision today was entirely consistent with the spirit and principles underlying the platform. Because, what would happen if we had voted against these agreements? If we had voted against the Indonesian free trade agreement we would have an Investor State Dispute Settlement clause through the old treaty in place that has no protections, that has no safeguards that protect the Australian Government legislating in our own interests. This agreement and the Caucus decision is consistent with the platform because it provides much greater safeguards, allows the Australian Government and State Governments to legislate in the interests of the Australian people.
JENNETT: Are you sure the unions – all of them – can be convinced of the arguments you’ve just put here?
CONROY: We’ll have a debate on the issue obviously but I am confident that Caucus’s decision is entirely consistent with the platform. This ISDS provision is much better, much more modern, more progressive than what exists right now and so that’s why I’m confident that this agreement is consistent with our platform.
JENNETT: OK, and just to go back to the earlier line of questioning about what Madeleine King is going to try to negotiate with Simon Birmingham, how close is she at the starting point? Is she 95 per cent in agreement with the Government before they even have this conversation?
CONROY: I haven’t spoken to Simon Birmingham so I don’t know. But I would find it bizarre if the Government can’t agree to protect Australian workers; if they can’t guarantee that they won’t waive labour market testing so that they can guarantee that Australians get first chance at those jobs. And secondly, that they rule out that this will allow exploitation of backpackers, which is really important. But it is up to the Government how they respond.
JENNETT: Just to clarify once more, if you didn’t get those two measures that you just outlined here, what would Labor’s settled, final position be?
CONROY: We will support the trade agreements. And I should note that if the Government can’t guarantee that they won’t waive labour market testing, that subsequent treaty will have to come back to Parliament and Labor will decide on any subsequent labour agreement with the Government of Indonesia. But I am confident that our arguments are compelling and the Government will respond to them because we are standing up for Australian jobs.
JENNETT: Let’s see where those negotiations go from here. Pat Conroy, thank you very much.
CONROY: Not a problem.
You can see the interview here