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Wednesday, 17 August 2011
Page: 8389

Mrs MIRABELLA (Indi) (17:37): I rise to speak on the Customs Amendment (Anti-dumping Improvements) Bill 2011. This is a day that Australian industry and the coalition has been waiting for for a long time—around three years, in fact. It was genuinely as long ago as that that the Labor Party flagged that the government would be taking action to improve Australia's antidumping system.

Finally, after all that time and following almost endless and ongoing efforts at buck-passing in recent years, the day has arrived when we have the opportunity to debate a piece of legislation on this issue. Of course, as every stakeholder in this area appreciates, the government has only acted now because it was shamed into it. Such a cross-section of critics had coalesced and so many storm clouds had gathered around its inaction that the government was rendered powerless to resist the inevitable any longer, especially after it became clear that even its own brethren in the union movement—and the faceless man who installed Ms Gillard as Prime Minister—were unhappy with its impotence on this issue. They told the government in no uncertain terms that something had to be done. I only wish this debate had come on sooner.

We all know that the Labor Party does not have its heart in legislation like the Customs Amendment (Anti-dumping Improvements) Bill. You only had to watch the awkward, cringe-worthy body language and answers of the trade minister at the press conference on this issue on 22 June if you were not aware of this point already.

This legislation is being introduced under sufferance and it is born not from a desire to support, encourage and improve the fate of Australian industry and Australian agriculture but out of what the government see as a need to appease Mr Howes and to shut down public criticism of their misunderstanding of the problem of dumping and its ramifications for the Australian economy. It is the result of Minister O'Connor and Minister Emerson being panicked into doing and saying something—so much so that, even at the time they were staging their rushed press conference, some of the key documents outlining the changes were, quite remarkably, still being hastily cobbled together, to the point that, for a number of days after the announcement, they were not even ready on the ALP website, the Prime Minister's website, the customs minister's website, the trade minister's website or in any other kind of public distribution, even though they had had three years to get the details ready.

And then we found out that that was not even adequate in any case. What has subsequently been revealed is that this turned out to be yet another occasion when a policy was not even taken to cabinet, let alone to caucus, for its consideration. On one hand you had two ministers spinning a line for public consumption that the changes in this bill are revolutionary and apparently—if you swallow what was in their media alert—the most ground-breaking changes to Australia's antidumping framework in more than a decade. Yet, on the other hand, it turns out that this issue, in practice, is so trivial to the Labor Party that it has not even been listed as an agenda item for its caucus to discuss.

The succession of Labor backbenchers who will be trotted out in this debate have had absolutely no say in their party's policy on this issue of antidumping and are now, far from the first time in their careers, being ordered to blindly support a policy that has come their way. Nor have Labor powerbrokers even bothered to make any serious explanatory information available to key industry stakeholders or to the Australian public at large. It just shows, yet again, how loose is their grip on proper government and democratic processes, how feigned is their interest in the future of Australian industry, especially local manufacturing, and how skewed their priorities are.

Nonetheless—I will make an important concession here—given how reluctant they always are to admit error and defeat, even when it is blindingly obvious how bad their decisions and policies are and how devastating the impacts are for the Australian community, I suppose we should be grateful for small mercies like this piece of legislation. In that context the coalition will be supporting the passage of the bill because at least it legislates for some basic improvements, and that is a start. But, as the AWU says, it is a first step. It is also quite a come-down—and an important one at that—for the trade minister and the customs minister. So some change in this area is definitely preferable to none.

We are glad that, dragged kicking and screaming though they may have been, the government have eventually reacted to the combined pressure of the coalition, Senator Xenophon, industry groups, individual businesses and trade unions to make changes such as imposing a time limit of 30 days on ministerial decision making, widening the range of factors available for consideration in the determination of material damage and expanding the list of subsidies against which Australian industries can apply for countervailing duties. Those are sensible and practical changes for which key stakeholders have been calling for some time and it is good that something is being done about these problems.

The coalition will also support the move to grant interested-party status to unions, industry associations and other downstream users through part 10B of the Customs Act. This change will allow these parties to gain direct participative rights in dumping investigations and the capacity to initiate appeals and reviews of decisions. It embeds in legislation recognition of the obvious point that the dumping of goods in Australia impacts on a wide range of parties. It also recognises that there are sometimes commercial limitations on the ability of a business or businesses to engage in antidumping applications.

Indeed, some of the trade unionists who have been at the core of this debate in Australia over recent months should be congratulated for their commitment to placing pressure on the government when it comes to antidumping policy. More broadly, we also welcome the custom minister's statement, in his second reading speech, that changes to improve Australia's antidumping system are vital, and we welcome his accompanying comment that local industries here are vulnerable to dumping. These are long-overdue acknowledgements from the government. There have been considerable and growing frustrations over recent years in Australia with the lack of a timely and effective investigation process undertaken by Customs and the significant costs imposed on businesses that wish to raise possible cases for consideration under the current antidumping regime. The system is widely regarded as being too expensive to access and is largely unworkable in its present form. The current structure of the system typically works against the best interests of Australian manufacturers. It represents another burden on them at a time when they are already encountering a range of unwanted costs and pressures and a series of poor and clumsy policies from a government that simply has no empathy for their plight. They want a system that works for them, not one that thwarts them, especially at a time when they are already confronted by a range of government imposed costs and compliance burdens and a series of clumsy policies from the government.

Against this background, anything that can be done to strengthen the integrity and quality of the administration of our antidumping system should be supported. We need to recognise that, for as much as Australia and other nations have embraced the ethos and operation of free trade over recent decades, it does not mean that there are not instances of unfair restrictive trade, nor that such instances may even be on the rise. After all, it is for entirely these reasons that antidumping systems exist in the first place and it is why their use is fully sanctioned and supported by the WTO. Far from serving as some sort of abominable subversion of free trade or as the last form of refuge for the closet protectionists, as some observers like the trade minister would often imply, they actually enshrine and serve to underpin free trade principles.

If they are effectively implemented, antidumping systems can go a long way to remove cases of market distortion and ensure that trade is conducted on a genuinely even playing field. If there is unfair trade, if goods are being dumped on the Australian market at below their comparable price at home or in some cases even below the cost of production, then these practices should be identified and dealt with. To simply cite the pre-eminence of market forces in this kind of debate and stand idly by while industry is held hostage to unfair practices that threaten their very existence is frankly nowhere near good enough anymore.

Hopefully the changes that the government is making in this bill will mark a turning point in helping to reverse any increases in dumping in Australia. They are certainly among the kinds of changes to which the coalition was giving voice when we committed in our 2010 election policy statement to review Australia's antidumping scheme to effectively ensure that Australian manufacturers' products are not undercut by imported subsidised products or products that do not comply with appropriate quality standards. In early 2011 we reinforced that commitment by establishing our dedicated coalition antidumping task force to specifically examine problems with the current regime and advocate for a more workable, accessible and effective model. They also tap into—albeit in an understated way—the reality that a number of other countries have increasingly recognised the importance of antidumping measures when encountering market-distorting trade activities, especially countries like the US and a number of EU member states, and more recently nations like Brazil, Argentina and India, where there has been a rapid escalation in the uptake of antidumping actions. Australia will find itself increasingly exposed and in an increasingly dangerous position if it does not remain mindful of these realities.

That said, the government here still has considerable work to do. Not only is it apparent that this bill legislates for only four of the policy changes announced on 22 June—and it is anyone's guess when we might expect to see further legislative changes that have been promised—but it is also clear that, even taking all of the flagged changes as a whole, the government has still not gone far enough. It is again indulging in another of its landmark hollowmen style games by selling some of its changes as things they are plainly not, especially when it comes to the absurd boast that it is allegedly boosting the resources of Customs—a point to which I will return shortly.

Fundamentally, this is yet another exercise in spin, in which the government is being too cute by half. In characteristic style, it is demonstrating that it is more obsessed with controlling public reporting of this issue than with putting in the hard yards and legislating for a full suite of changes that will actually have teeth and will genuinely deliver the kinds of reforms that will work to the full benefit of the Australian economy.

The spectacle of Minister Emerson breathlessly invoking the acronym WTO in almost every question he is asked on this issue and essentially railing against everyone and everything that argues for enhancements to Australian's antidumping system represents not only a public slap in the face for at least two senators on his own side of the parliament who have identified grave concerns with recent approaches to this policy area but also a misreading of the national interest—and it is a slap in the face for Australian industry, which is heartily sick and tired of being treated so poorly by this government. It is a shame he clearly does not come to this debate realising that antidumping systems and free trade are not mutually exclusive and that our obligations to the World Trade Organisation do not preclude us from implementing a more effective and robust framework. If he recognised that to be the case, then we might have had a more serious and proactive effort from the government.

For once, just once, it would be nice if Minister Emerson actually stood up for Australian industry and for all those millions of workers who used to be the lifeblood of the Australian Labor Party—the Australian Labor Party that is now simply an axis of weasels. As one of their own senators drubs them, they are a group of 'lobotomised zombies' whose passive acquiescence, as Australian industry gets battered from pillar to post, is a national disgrace.

Let me turn to one of the many obvious holes in Labor's spin on this issue: the implication in its glossy promotional documents that its alleged extra resourcing of Customs represents 'a boost'. There is Minister O'Connor's statement on 22 June that the government is looking to increase Customs' resources by nearly 50 per cent. The coalition's suspicion at the time that this was nothing more than sneaky rhetoric has subsequently proved to be extremely well founded because it has now emerged that there is going to be no extra funding of Customs at all. Rather than recruiting 14 new staff, it turns out that there will be no net increase in the overall staff numbers of Customs, only that 14 positions will be taken from elsewhere within the agency. So the overblown claim that there is an increase at all, let alone one of nearly 50 per cent, is exactly that—overblown. Even if they do ultimately shift another 14 staff to the relevant branch, other areas of Customs will obviously need to be cut to compensate.

All of this is at a time when there is already unprecedented strain and pressure on Customs staff in a number of areas, especially passenger processing, as the government continues to try in vain to patch up its dog's breakfast on border protection, following year after year of budget reductions that have already been forced upon the agency under this government—and to think that the Labor Party has the hide to criticise the coalition for its statements about the Public Service.

Something has to give and it is clear that Labor does not particularly care where or what it is. There is no commitment to improving the lot, the culture, the morale or the practical effectiveness of Customs. There is only a determination to try to make up for some of its excessive spending and appalling waste of government by now starving funds to areas that are already on life support anyway. Simply shuffling resources and giving the relevant branch the appearance of a lick of fresh paint by changing its name and relocating back to a diffuse staff that it probably had shifted out of there during its first few years in office is not going to achieve anything. What is to say that when it is required to extinguish another spot fire in another area of Customs at some point in the future the government will not just engage in the same kind of cost shifting again—only this time removing resources from the anti-dumping area itself?

This government is on the run. It is not considered policymaking or careful deployment of resources. I also note that the second reading speech of the Minister for Home Affairs on this bill featured references to the utopian prospect that this bill will provide 'greater certainty'. Unfortunately, he is clearly a long way from providing certainty on at least two of the key other measures, namely, the appointment of an SME support officer and the creation of a working group of the International Trade Remedies Forum, because it is not clear how these will function in practice other than that the SME support officer will be appointed purely on a trial basis and—surprise, surprise!—only until just after the time that the next federal election is due.

One of the other critical points of contention, confusion and uncertainty around dumping is that there is growing suspicion of increased use of subsidies by foreign governments to help lower the costs of production borne by exporters from within their own countries. It is true that through this legislation Labor is taking the rather obvious step of expanding the list of subsidies against which Australians can take action, and that is a good thing. But there has been nothing in the way of serious debate, discussion or information from the Labor Party about how it practically plans to strengthen the application of measures such as preliminary affirmative determinations or how it takes account, through article 2.4 of the WTO's anti-dumping agreement for instance, of the comparative advantage that will be conferred on overseas producers as a result of the introduction of Australia's go-it-alone carbon tax or how it intends, if at all, to make changes to the way in which the WTO's agreement on subsidies and countervailing measures is interpreted and applied.

Labor's changes do represent an improvement, but you could also be forgiven for being worried that the pursuit of this so-called package of improvements will, at the end of the day, just be another chapter in the long tale of Labor inaction and impotence when it comes to anti-dumping—just as was the case in 2008 when Labor, as part of the COAG process, formally agreed that anti-dumping was a priority area for reform but then nothing whatsoever was even uttered about it until the following year, just like in 2009 when the Labor Party commissioned and then received a Productivity Commission review of anti-dumping policy but then stuffed the report in the bottom drawer and did not bother to dust it off until after the 2010 election and just like earlier this year when the Minister for Home Affairs faithfully promised that Labor would commit to a new approach to anti-dumping—and presumably to new financial investments in the system as well—as part of the budget but then was forced to give in to the Treasurer who presumably told him that Labor's serial squandering had ensured there was simply no money left to fund this new approach and the announcement would need to be postponed and reworked yet again.

If the Labor Party were genuinely serious about anti-dumping reform, it would not merely introduce this so-called first tranche of anti-dumping legislation or even the second, third and however many more tranches it has in mind to implement what has been announced. Indeed, it would go further. Rather than gilding the lily about the modest reach and impact of its changes, it would practically and genuinely commit to more far-reaching cultural and practical reforms that are required. Nonetheless, these modest improvements are welcomed and I commend the bill.