Scott Morrison’s “curious” decision to skip the signing of a free-trade deal with Indonesia has been called into question by Sydney independent MP Kerryn Phelps.
The prime minister’s absence from an official ceremony in Jakarta was very unusual, Dr Phelps said.
“It’s also curious, I have to say, that the prime minister isn’t going there himself to sign that agreement,” she told Sky News on Monday.
“That is very unusual with a major trading partner of the magnitude of Indonesia.”
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham insisted there was nothing unusual about Mr Morrison’s absence, saying major deals were often signed by ministers without national leaders present.
“This is business as normal,” he told ABC News.
Indonesia is in campaign mode ahead of its general election on April 17.
Senator Birmingham and his Indonesian counterpart Enggartiasto Lukita will ink the agreement on Monday.
The trade deal was meant to be signed last year, but was delayed when the prime minister floated the idea of moving Australia’s embassy in Israel.
“The thought bubble about moving Australia’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem didn’t please anybody,” Dr Phelps said.
“It was a very ill-considered foreign policy, it didn’t consider any of the security or trade or foreign policy issues that come with such a decision.”
Unions fear the trade deal will hurt Australian workers by opening the floodgates to exploited Indonesian workers, and undermine national sovereignty by allowing international rulings on investment disputes.
The ACTU has branded it a “dodgy deal” that favours unlimited temporary-visa holders, while the head of the manufacturer’s union says there’s no substantive evidence the deal will benefit Australian workers.
Senator Birmingham dismissed the concerns.
“We’re seeing Australia’s unions running a predictable scare campaign when the facts speak the opposite,” he told the Nine Network.
“We’ve done trade deals and increased market access to countries right around the world in the last few years, we’ve actually managed to grow jobs by 1.2 million.”
The deal will increase trade flows between the two countries, which are both in the world’s top 20 economies, but not in each other’s top 10 trading partners.
It is Indonesia’s first major agreement of its type and will allow Australian-owned universities to operate in the country.
Senator Birmingham said Australian frozen meats, live cattle, feed grains, dairy, citrus and rolled steel would receive favourable treatment under the agreement.
Labor frontbencher Michelle Rowland said the opposition welcomed the deal, noting negotiations were started under the previous Labor government.
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