Tony Abbott channels Labor leaders past to back China trade deal

Tony Abbott has moved onto an aggressive footing in recent days in defence of the China-Australia FTA. Photo: Alex EllinghausenTony Abbott will hit back at opposition doubts over his government’s free trade agreement with China claiming it is consistent with the best traditions of previous Labor prime ministers Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and that it cannot be undone anyway because “a deal is a deal”.

In a major speech to Chinese business leaders in Sydney on Thursday, Mr Abbott will lay out the advantages to Australia of the wide-ranging deal, which has attracted criticism from Labor and the unions for containing what they say are inadequate requirements on Chinese ventures to employ Australians, and to maintain high safety standards through the use of qualified staff such as electricians.

“The FTA with China will change Australia for the better, it will change China for the better, and it will change our region for the better,” Mr Abbott’s speech notes say.

“It will secure the future employment of generations of Australians.”

Branding a televised union campaign by the militant Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union  “xenophobic”, Mr Abbott plans to use the speech to appeal to Labor’s reform tradition championed by Messrs Whitlam, Hawke, and Keating, and supported by economic rationalists of more recent years such as Rudd-Gillard ministers Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson.

“This is too important to our country, to our businesses and our children, to be sacrificed at the altar of xenophobic short-term politics,” he will say.

“The Coalition won’t be part of that – and I hope our opponents will end their flirtation with the ideas and fears of the past.

“As the former trade minister Simon Crean put it: World trade is a multiplier of economic growth. If people are looking for job opportunities and advanced incomes, the path to that is in opening up trade.”

Mr Abbott and his Trade Minister Andrew Robb have moved onto an aggressive footing in recent days in defence of the China-Australia FTA after Labor’s National Conference resolved to put pressure on the government to renegotiate aspects of the agreement in order to beef up the protection of Australian jobs.

Labor has also pledged to use a planned two-year review to seek to renegotiate labour aspects of the free trade agreement , prompting Chinese officials to flag they would use that as an opportunity to reopen other aspects as well.

Casting it as a new form of sovereign risk, Mr Abbott will tell Labor that the time for such things has passed and that for a subsequent government to seek to go back would be seen as dishonourable.

“My hope is that they will listen to the sane economic voice of people like Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson,” he will state.

“Either way, this government is locked in with our FTA with China, after 10 years of talks, we successfully concluded the negotiations.

“A deal is a deal – to amend one part, is to reopen it all – and we won’t do that because it would put Australian businesses, Australian exports and Australian jobs at risk.”

The trade focus comes as anxiety levels rise over another deal in the final stages of negotiation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

That 12-country deal is being conducted with inordinate secrecy, adding to fears of higher pharmaceutical costs due to patent agreements and to the inclusion of potentially costly investor-state dispute settlement provisions that allow off-shore companies to sue governments for loss of profits due to domestic policy.

Labor remains highly sceptical of ISDS provisions and has flagged an effort to negotiate their removal if elected – including within the free trade agreement with China.

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