Syrian refugee crisis and the China Free Trade Agreement - AM Agenda





SUBJECT/S: Syrian refugee crisis; China Free Trade Agreement.

KIERAN GILBERT: Andrew Leigh, a lot to get across. First off on the issue of refugees and the Syrian intake particularly: what's your view on this? Should there be an extra contingent that the government takes in and what sort of number are you talking about?

ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: Well Kieran, unless you think that the needs of other developed countries have gone down, the only way in which you can provide more assistance, be more generous, is to raise the refugee intake. I've consistently argued that it was a mean-spirited decision of the Government to cut the refugee intake from 20,000 to 13,750 when they first won office. Labor would like to see that go back over time to 27,000; doubling today's intake.

GILBERT: So should there be a one-off intake as well though, given this current specific crisis?

LEIGH: Well we believe that the intake should rise, this is not an immediate one-off crisis as you say, Kieran. I think we should expect the crisis in the Middle East to be rolling and continuing over a number of years. We've seen tragic scenes in Europe, the sheer desperation of refugees escaping. But there's no immediate end to the Syrian crisis in sight and a range of other problems are looming in that region. 

GILBERT: Do you accept the Prime Minister's argument that on per capita terms, Australia already does better than the rest of the world in terms of the refugee intake? 

LEIGH: That's only because most developed countries don't work with the UNHCR in taking refugees. We're one of the few that does, to our credit. But if you include other countries which operate a sort of ‘knock on your door’ rule to refugees, we're well down the list. We can afford to take more refugees, we're not so poor of a nation to be unable to do that. Countries which have been performing much worse in economic terms than us take more refugees.

GILBERT: Given where this crisis is at, as you say, it is an unfolding, an ongoing humanitarian crisis. But given where it's at right now, isn't there an argument for a one-off emergency intake as the Greens have prosecuted?

LEIGH: I think it's about how you react over time, Kieran. I'd certainly like to see the Government reverse the decision they made when they came to office, and go back to 20,000 that would provide more than 6,000 additional refugee places this year. That would allow us to take in more Syrian refugees without cutting back on the number of refugees we take from countries like Iraq and Afghanistan which are not in a substantially better condition than they were a few years ago.

GILBERT: But you don't support a one-off intake beyond the annual humanitarian intake?

LEIGH: I think we should take more refugees, Kieran. And I think anyone who is arguing for more Syrian refugees but fewer refugees from other countries isn't operating in the spirit of generosity that ought to characterise Australia at this moment.

GILBERT: Let's look at the China FTA, and you heard Andrew Robb before the break, he said there's no difference in the Labor market testing arrangements and foreign workers coming to Australia under the China FTA than under the Japanese or the Korean, Labor backed both. Why is this such a big deal?

LEIGH: Well the arrangements are different under this, Kieran. You simply need to look at the agreement itself.

GILBERT: How are they different? The Minister says there's no difference at all. If anything, it's more stringent.

LEIGH: That is simply not the ordinary reading when you look at the text of this agreement. That's why many commentators have raised their concerns about the impact on trades and technical workers who won't be subject to labour market testing. We want to make sure, with the unemployment rate the highest in 13 years, that Australians are getting good jobs out of this. Labor opened the relationship with mainland China under the Whitlam government and we've overseen the biggest tariff cuts in Australia in 1973, 1988, 1991. We’re a free trading party. Our concern in this agreement, Kieran, is what it does on the temporary migration side. Let's get that right.

GILBERT: But the Minister says the framework that the Government is following here, he was vigilant on it throughout the working of the FTA and negotiation, that it remains as Labor had put it in place under the former minister, Brendan O'Connor. If there's any problem, isn't it Labor's wrongdoing?

LEIGH: That's simply not right. Labor would not have signed off on an agreement which removed labour market testing for trades and technical workers. We're expecting to hear evidence today from the Master Builders Association suggesting that in their view, there ought to be appropriate checks and balances on tradespeople working on big projects. We need more of these infrastructure projects, Kieran. But we also need to make sure that Australian workers are having a go at jobs.

GILBERT: So you're not worried that this is stepping into xenophobia from the union campaign here?

LEIGH: I think that's a wacky claim from the Government. This, from the Government that has wanted to water down racial hatred laws, and which has not criticised one of its members who went to speak at a Reclaim Australia rally. Let's not have these claims about xenophobia and racism, let's sit down and sensibly work through the small portion of this agreement which is the migration part and then let’s –  

GILBERT: It's miniscule, isn't it, in terms of the number. Even if what you're saying is right, the number of 457 workers in Australia is 0.9 per cent – it’s a tiny fraction that we're talking about here. Surely Labor is not going to stand in the way of hundreds of millions of dollars in tariff reductions that would kick into place next year? I think it is $600 million worth of tariff reductions in the first year alone.

LEIGH: Kieran, we should be able to sign an agreement which is good for all Australians. It's easy to say it's a small share of the economy, that is somewhat harder if you're a construction worker who has been relying on work in the investment phase of the mining boom that's now tapering off, looking for work in some of these big projects, but then worried about how you may be shut out of the opportunities there. Let's get this right, let's have a sensible and mature conversation as John Howard did.

GILBERT: What, specifically, is it in the agreement – you say it's different but what component is it that is different?

LEIGH: The removal of labour market testing for trades and technical projects over $150 million.

GILBERT: But the Minister says that’s for executives, the lack of labour market testing is for those senior representatives crucial for any project. And other than that, it’s the same framework.

LEIGH: That's not my read of the primary text.

GILBERT: Ok, Shadow Minister thanks very much for your time.



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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.