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Wednesday, 21 October 2015
Page: 12069


Ms MacTIERNAN (Perth) (18:14): I rise to speak on the Customs Amendment (China-Australia Free Trade Agreement Implementation) Bill 2015.

Of course we must engage with China in trade. Of course we must engage with China in culture. And we must engage with China politically. China is the major force within our region and, of course, is increasingly becoming a dominant player globally. So it makes absolute sense for Australia, as a trading nation, to attempt to liberalise its trading arrangements with China. I want to note and repeat the comments that were made by the Leader of the Opposition: it was the Labor Party, the labour movement, that first modernised our relationship with China. The Leader of the Opposition reflected on that historic journey that Gough Whitlam took to the People's Republic of China to open up the relationship with Australia, pre-empting even the US into that area.

But I also want to go back one step further to the 1930s when, indeed, it was the labour movement within Australia that was the first to stand up for the rights of the Chinese people, that was the first to stand up and say that something needs to be done about what is happening in China, that, following the Japanese invasion, the Chinese population was being persecuted. It was not Australian businesses out there—they were still very keen to be selling that pig iron to Japan. It was indeed the trade union movement, so don't you on the other side lecture us and describe us as xenophobic when the union movement raises these very important concerns about whether, in the detail, this agreement is a good one.

Mr Hutchinson interjecting

Ms MacTIERNAN: I note the member opposite commenting on the MUA. Indeed it is the MUA and the CFMEU unions—I know your most recent hate figures—that actually have very much in the core of their DNA protecting the rights of workers around the world. Let's get that historical context right of who it is that is acting as a good global citizen.

We have heard many members opposite and members on our own side talk about the benefits that will come from the China free-trade agreement. And there is absolutely no doubt that there will be significant benefits to come from the China free-trade agreement in specific areas. No-one would possibly in their right mind claim that there are not in fact going to be substantial winners arising out of this. I think it has been pointed out that much of the agricultural sector has a lot to gain from it. But at the end of the day, you cannot just have an assessment of an agreement that just pulls out the winners and describes those winners any more than you can make a rational assessment on the agreement by just pulling out the figures of those that are going to lose. But we do have to understand that we have got ourselves a bit into a mindset here, as the Productivity Commission noted in 2010 when it said:

… the Commission is concerned that, at least in some quarters, there tends to be a mindset of ‘agreements for agreement’s sake’, premised partly on the view that Australia must follow a trend in other countries.

I think this is what we have seen emerge with the current government. They have been very resistant to there being any questioning of the detail of this agreement. They have been very resistant to anyone who might say: this bit of the agreement does not look very good to us or we are concerned by the chapter 10 provisions about the free movement of labour. When you are dealing with a population the size of China, 1.3 billion people, that free movement of people provision for a whole range of contractual services can indeed fundamentally change the whole balance of migration and population and labour market demand in our country, so all of these things have to be subject to some detailed rigorous analysis. Every time that an issue has been raised by the labour movement or by civil society or by the union movement, the only answer we get is 'You are being xenophobic', 'You are not drinking the Kool-Aid' or 'You are not going with free-trade agreements'.

Free-trade agreements can be good. You can have balanced free-trade agreements. You can have free-trade agreements that do not compromise your sovereignty. I would argue that this may not be one of those. You can have free-trade agreements that are entered into with a rational analysis of what we are going to win and what we are going to lose. You can make that public and let us make a determination as to whether or not this is a good thing. I do not dismiss anything that has been said on the other side about some of the benefits, but none of them are quantified. It is all just, 'Let's pick up the stuff that looks good and talk about that,' and not have anything that indeed causes us to reflect and to quantify the nature of the negatives and positives.

I think we need to be a little bit cautious of a lot of the boosterism that has gone on about this agreement. We hear that the service sector will boom. I hope that is true. But many of these sectors are only being given access to the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone; they are not being given access across the entire population—admittedly, I imagine the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone is something in the order of 20 million people but it is certainly not 1.3 billion people. The education sector access is unclear. Some commentators say that the benefit may be as little as being entitled to be listed on a website. Again, we need to get down to the detail. There is much talk about the benefits to our biggest exporters in the resource sector. While I acknowledge that the WA mining industry will benefit from the cut in tariffs for products like alumina, the big-ticket items that we are exporting, iron ore and LNG, are already not subject to tariffs. So it is highly misleading when the minister chooses to say that 92 per cent of Australian resource exports will now enter China tariff-free. Is that an honest statistic when 74.7 per cent already enter in duty-free without this agreement?

So there has been an enormous amount of bolstering to this agreement without the rigorous analysis that we need to make a rational decision, to determine whether or not this is in fact going to be in our long-term benefit, and to ensure that we do keep, on our own shores, within our own community, sufficient skills for us to be able to leverage off and develop new industries. We should not be giving up on manufacturing in Australia. We will not be, and should not see ourselves as, just a provider of services; we are vulnerable in that area. I think people are being quite deluded about this. The ability for Chinese people—very, very skilful Chinese people—to very quickly overtake us in areas of architecture and engineering is already evident in some of the things that we are seeing in Perth, where we are seeing large Chinese firms already doing their own detailed engineering design for civil construction projects in Western Australia.

I believe in globalisation. I think it is good that we have a system that enables the poorer nations of this world to lift themselves out of poverty. But I do not believe that these agreements necessarily all deliver this. I think very often what we see happening is that a privileged few, who are the beneficiaries, both in our country and in our partner countries, are taking the lion's share of the benefit. So, as to much of the talk about the alleviation of poverty, I have a little bit of cynicism because, whilst I actually agree with that principal as underpinning the need for internationalists like those of us on the Labor side to be supportive of globalisation, that is not in fact in detail how these things are really panning out.

I want to end with a couple of quotations from Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz when he says:

In short, globalization, as it's been managed, is narrowing the choices facing our democracies, making it more difficult for them to undertake the tax and expenditure policies that are necessary if we are to create societies with more equality and more opportunity.

He also says:

We have learned the risks of unfettered markets for our economy and how to temper capitalism so that it serves the majority of citizens, not a tiny, powerful fraction. So too, we can temper globalization; indeed, we must if we want to preserve our democracy, prevent our rampant inequality from growing worse, and maintain our influence around the world.

So my plea is: I hope this agreement works. I hope it turns out that this is a net benefit for our community. I hope it is a net benefit for the people of China and not just a small few. But for us to know if this has been achieved, it is absolutely essential that we put in place a rigorous mechanism for assessing the short-term, medium-term and long-term impact of this agreement, and I hope that we will do that.