We have the opportunity now—not after the next election if there's a change of government and not at some time in the future, but right now—to send the government back to the drawing board to negotiate an agreement that does not include investor-state dispute resolution provisions and that does not weaken labour rights in this country. We know, because we've heard everyone except the government say it during the course of this debate and in public, that this TPP agreement weakens local labour laws. And it does that by including provisions in it that allow other countries to have workers sent here, and those workers come here without labour-market testing. They come here without an adequate assessment of skills, and they end up getting exploited. They get exploited because they're brought here and while they're here they very often get told, 'We're going to pay you substandard wages and conditions and, if you arc up, we will send you back.' Not only does it exploit those overseas workers but it means local wages and conditions get depressed as well. We know this because we've been saying this for some time, and the unions have been saying it for some time, and independent experts have been saying it for some time.
But we've heard over the last few days, as recently as Insiders on the weekend, the Labor Party saying it. The Labor Party is saying, 'It is bad that these trade agreements have provisions that allow corporations to sue governments and allow big gaping holes to be opened up in our labour and migration laws.'
The good news is that we now have a chance to do something about it. But it seems to be the case that Labor, in classic style, is saying, 'No. Let's wave this legislation through as quickly as possible, sign up to the deal as quickly as we can, and then maybe, if we win government, we'll come back and renegotiate it.' Now I hope that there is a change of government at this election, because this rotten government has lost the right to govern. But, when you've got the opportunity while you're in opposition to force a better deal, you should take it. What the Labor Party wants us to do is the equivalent of saying, when you're buying a house: 'Yes, I'll pay you $800,000 for it now, but after the deal's signed I might go back and try to renegotiate it and get the price down to $700,000.' You don't say that to the vendor. What vendor is going to do that?
What the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, knows is that the time to strike is before the ink is dry, so New Zealand has negotiated itself an exemption from a number of the objectionable provisions of this agreement, and we should do the same. The idea that a new government is going to be able to walk back to those countries who've already signed on the dotted line, who've already given up as much as they want to give up in order to get this deal, is just fanciful, as is the idea that somehow, after the election, we're going to be able to negotiate all of these exemptions with other countries. As far as I'm aware, it has never happened, and there's a reason for that. If you're the other country, when the new Prime Minister comes knocking on your door and says, 'Excuse me, I made a promise to get myself over the election and I'd now like some more favourable treatment for my country,' what do you reckon you're going to say? Are you going to say yes? Of course you're not.
The time to strike is now. So I say to Labor: let's stand up to this rotten government rather than enable them. I expect an approach from the Liberals that says: 'Let's sign away the rights of government to act unfettered in their population's interests and let's allow corporations to have a say over what governments do.' I expect the Liberals to say, 'When there's a dispute between multinationals and governments, let's have the dispute worked out by a secret panel of lawyers that is able to make its decisions behind closed doors and doesn't operate according to any usual court proceeding and let's just allow that panel to say, "No, government X. I'm sorry, you can't pass laws in favour of your population, because it infringes on a corporation's profits."' I expect the Liberal government to say, 'We should be able to contract out of the labour market testing provisions in Australia's law by giving certain countries unfettered rights to fly in planeloads of exploited workers.' But what I ask of the Labor Party is that it stand up to them. You're the opposition. The clue's in the name. Oppose sometimes. Oppose when the government does something bad. Don't sit there and say, 'We're wringing our hands because the government did something bad but we couldn't do anything about it.'
We have just had a tied vote in this House because all of the crossbenchers, for varying reasons, have expressed concerns about how trade deals are being negotiated in this country. Far be it from me to speak on behalf of my colleagues on the crossbench, because we come from a variety of political points of view, but I think it is fair to say that, across the political spectrum, people are sick and tired of governments signing up to deals through this opaque black-box process and just asking us to take on face value that it's going to be good for agriculture or for manufacturing or for workers in this country. We don't want that anymore. We want a better process for negotiating these trade deals. We don't want to be in a position where parliament is told, 'I'm sorry, the government has gone out and agreed to contract out of the minimum provisions in Australian labour law and you just have to cop it.' We are standing up.
I say to the Labor Party: you've got the five crossbenchers speaking with one voice, saying that there has got to be a better way to negotiate trade deals in this country. It's not that we're opposed to trade deals—certainly from my perspective—but they shouldn't be at the expense of local workers and they shouldn't be at the expense of other protections. We have the opportunity right here, right now, to do something about it. I say to Labor: don't go crowing about the tied vote if straightaway afterwards you come in and vote with the government to enable their legislation to get through. We have the chance to do something about this right now.
I heard the minister at the table before say, 'It's okay; under our existing free trade deals it would be illegal to underpay workers.' The minister misses the point. At the moment the system is structured in such a way that, whatever the laws say in Australia, companies based in the countries with whom we have these trade deals can bring in workers without an independent assessment of their skills on the way in. If questions are asked when those workers are here, we usually or sometimes find that those workers are on the next plane out. The government puts no effort into monitoring the system, so exploitation is rife. As I said, that hurts those overseas workers and hurts the local workers as well.
Back in 2016 in Melbourne in Richmond in my electorate—I stand to be corrected, but my recollection was that it was in Richmond—some workers had come from China to work on installing a car stacker in a new apartment block. There are people in Australia who know how to install a car stacker, but these workers came in on a visa and were never checked on their way in. You don't have to check; it is all a paper based system at the moment. They were paid lower than the local wage to help build an apartment block in Melbourne. There was no local advertising for these positions first, because, when the company from the other country signs a piece of paper that says, 'We need these highly skilled workers and there is a shortage,' it gets ticked and flicked in the department. When the union got involved and found the rampant underpayment, these people were put back on a plane and weren't heard from again. When they came into the country, the visa was approved on the same day it was applied for. Don't tell me that these rigorous checks are going on, because they're not. We find that they come through and, when we find out they're being exploited, get sent back.
In 2018 on a job in Queensland a company claimed to be bringing in workers on the basis of unique, highly specialised skills. They were performing electrical work, testing and installing some solar panels. There are people in Australia who can do that. It's routine electrical installation work. There was no advertising of their positions first, there was no verification of skills, and they were paid less than the local wages. Again it was the union, not the government, that got involved and managed to get them back pay for some of that, but that's only the ones they were able to catch. The government lets many of these through the net.
As we speak right now over 100 workers on the Hobart Hospital project have been brought in on visas under the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, claiming unique, highly specialised skills, which is the test under the law. They're performing carpentry, window-fitting—
Mr Wilkie: Plastering.
Mr BANDT: and plastering, the member for Denison tells me. Don't say that we can't find people who can do that work here. You know why there is an incentive to bring those workers in? Because they didn't get paid for five or six weeks. The union again—in this instance the CFMMEU—got involved and has forced some of the back pay, but many of these workers are now being disappeared and sent back to China.
This is a pattern—pattern after pattern. We raised it in this House when the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement was being signed. We asked Labor to vote with us on some amendments then, and they said no. Labor has known about this for a very long time. You even acknowledge that these issues still exist, but you won't vote with us to stop them. You are enabling this neoliberal government. There is a reason this government is on the nose. It is because people in this country are sick of the trickledown troika of Labor, Liberal and big business. They are sick of three decades of being told that we have to sell everything off and have a race to the bottom. They are sick of being told that society has to be dog-eat-dog, where paying people the lowest-possible wages is the only ultimate goal of everything.
They want protection of the things that matter and they want people to be looked after here and for people to be looked after overseas as well. You can oppose these trade deals and argue that they should be better, not because you don't want people from overseas coming to this country but because you want a bare minimum in place that says that if someone comes to Australia to do work here then they should get paid the local minimum wages and conditions. It is not objectionable to argue that. And we now know, because we've seen it time after time after time, that these so-called free trade deals aren't actually just about free trade; they are about giving corporations greater rights than they already have and greater rights as against everyday people.
We have seen time after time examples of abuse. So, we need to stop it. We know that at the moment when you bring people in and there's no skills testing; you just put the right code on the form and the department grants it. We know that there's no rigorous labour market testing at the moment and, to the extent that there is, so many countries are now going to get an exemption as a result of this. And we know that it's fanciful to think that the countries that have that are suddenly going to give it up just because there happens to be a new Prime Minister. Why on earth would they do that? I hope they do, but I wouldn't be pinning my whole trade and labour policy on that basis. But that's what this Labor Party is doing.
We know that in many instances these visas are issued on the same day that they're requested, suggesting that there could be no independent testing of skills; it is just not happening. To the extent that there is any assessment, it's a paper based administrative assessment, and we don't even see in the TPP or in this legislation a simple statement that says that if someone comes to Australia to do the work then they should be paid local wages and conditions. You would think—
Mr Ciobo: It's called domestic labour law.
Mr BANDT: And I hear the minister chime in, 'Oh, it's called domestic labour law.' What you don't get is that you're carving out exemptions to this labour law under this. You are carving out exemptions by saying that people can come in without the proper testing and without even any assessment about what their skill level is. How can you know whether someone's being paid properly, if you don't know objectively what their skill level is? That's the situation you are about to tick off on.
We've got the chance to do something about it right now, and I am moving that this bill be parked until we do what New Zealand's done and what some other countries have done, and that is go and negotiate some more protections under this agreement. Do not sign off now on giving corporations greater rights at the expense of everyday people. Do not sign off on total exemptions to our labour and migration law. Send the government back and, until they come back with a better deal, we should not pass this legislation.