Decks cleared for ChAFTA as Labour ends standoff

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The decks have been cleared for the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) after Australia’s main opposition Labour Party said on Wednesday that it was dropping its final objections to the deal’s ratification before the end of the year, according to media reports.

Australia signed the FTA with China in June this year. The deal, which the Australian government called the best ever between Beijing and a Western country, will open up Chinese markets to Australian farm exporters and the services sector while easing curbs on Chinese investment in resource-rich Australia.

The Labour Party had held up passage of the deal through parliament over what it said was a lack of protections for Australian workers and issues with the visa regime for foreign workers. Powerful trade unions aligned with the party to fiercely oppose the bill.

Labour leader Bill Shorten said the party had negotiated an agreement with the government to support the bill after securing sufficient legal safeguards and protections for Australian jobs, wages and work conditions.

The breakthrough follows the government’s offer to amend migration regulations to ensure employers have made genuine efforts to recruit Australian workers before seeking them from overseas under a work agreement.

“I am pleased today to announce that … Labour now has achieved what we believe to be satisfactory legal protections which weren’t previously proposed, which means that Labor can now support the speedy passage of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement,” Shorten said in Canberra.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull hailed the bipartisan deal, saying it showed the parliament could work together and marked a “great day for Australians” while Trade Minister Andrew Robb said the “spectacular outcome” restored the Australian tradition of bipartisanship on trade liberalisation, which he saw as “a very positive development for the country” and for business confidence.

“Essentially, what we have done is seek to provide clarity and assurance in a number of areas for Labor in regard to the issues that they have raised. They just want to make sure that some of the measures, particularly labour market testing, is not changed just by government fiat some time in the future,” Robb said.

He committed to amend regulations under the Migration Act to ensure that “the proposed party to the work agreement … must have demonstrated that they have made recent and genuine efforts to recruit Australian workers in the occupation and location covered by the work agreement”.

Robb has also pledged to toughen visa conditions to address concerns about the easing of mandatory skills assessments for licensed tradespeople such as carpenters and electricians.

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