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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1658


Senator MARGETTS (5.52 p.m.) —This year's budget is notable for its maintenance of the government's continued commitment to its deficit reduction strategy, despite community concerns about the need to fund meaningful programs to address the problems of the unemployed. The government has patently failed to address the very real and growing social and environmental debt that this nation is accruing. The government continues to misrepresent its primary goals and the assured passage of its program has been achieved by avoiding the need for parliamentary scrutiny of many of its initiatives. The Greens (WA) recently highlighted underspending and ongoing program cuts in a number of areas, such as urban and regional development, rural programs, land and water care, foreign aid, conservation, environmental protection, and so on.

  What is not addressed is the impact on Australian society of this unendorsed and covert program. We have seen a fair bit of evidence in the last weeks of the growing inequality of Australian society. The erosion of government services to communities and the erosion of any programs that might be able to effectively deal with the structures which could control or prevent such growing inequality is one of our major concerns. The conditions in Australia's workplaces and the government's push to ensure that there is no effective social or environmental regulation of trade is crucial to the future of this nation as we enter the next millennium.

  Workers' conditions and the environmental impacts of products and the manufacturing processes are integrally linked with the international trading system. If this nation is to trade in the international marketplace, the cost impact of those factors will have an impact on both product price and corporate profitability.

  Unfortunately, however, the so-called deregulation under the Multilateral Trade Organisation—formerly GATT—actually amounts to an emasculation of the ability of any nation to regulate trade, because any attempt by any nation to regulate its industry, labour conditions or environmental impacts will inevitably result in an additional cost and therefore impact on the competitiveness of the industry on the international market. Where any other nation fails to regulate on issues such as this, it will find itself in a more competitive position, even if these benefits are only short term.

  The Greens (WA) believe that putting all our economic eggs in the basket of international competitiveness is naive in the extreme. It is necessary to take a regional and community-based approach to economic policy which values rather than wastes our valuable human and natural resources. Having embraced the path of financial, trade and labour market deregulation, the very least the government must do now is regain some ability to make its own decisions to protect the environment and basic human rights. There needs to be international recognition that discrimination in trade is legitimate where there is clear evidence of the exploitation of people or environmental degradation involved in the process of production. This is basically a signal to corporations that, in spite of the international scope of their operations, they still have some responsibility to the rest of society and to the planet.

  Yesterday, I asked Senator McMullan what the Australian government would do to ensure that deregulation does not result in forcing us to accept exploitation and environmental degradation as a normal part of trade. He answered that the Australian government supports the International Labor Organisation, so we do not need to do anything to make sure that the Multilateral Trade Organisation addresses these questions. He conveniently ignores the fact that the MTO does not ignore the question—it opposes any attempt to prevent human exploitation. It does so by threatening any nation that discriminates against products of exploitation with trade sanctions. It has gone beyond GATT, which could only threaten sectoral sanctions, and now can impose cross-sectoral sanctions. That means that a `trade barrier', such as the Australian regulation relating to minimum Australian content on TV, which used to be subject to other sanctions in only the communication-entertainment area, can now have sanctions imposed by the MTO against our wheat, or iron, or anything and everything else we export.

  Senator McMullan also stated that the ILO was the proper organisation to address issues such as forced labour. Yet, on 7 June the ILO called for regulation of trade. The ILO clearly called for integration of social issues, specifically issues of child labour and forced labour into the MTO. A Reuters article quoted Michel Hansenne, the ILO Director-General as saying:

A multilateral approach must, in a clear way, pursue the double objectives of improving respect for workers' rights and promoting social progress worldwide, which implies the right to development of all.

I think the moment has come to knit closer, solid links between these institutions (the UN, ILO, and other international social justice structures, and the MTO, OECD, and other economic ones). One cannot envisage social progress outside of economic and financial policies.

One cannot get a lot clearer than that. It is unworkable to support social justice and workers' justice internationally by supporting separate conventions outside of economic ones and then to support economic conventions and organisations that are directly counter to the social justice ones. The MTO is opposed to what the ILO suggests.

  Implicit in the ILO approach is the suggestion that, in order to end worker exploitation, forced labour, bonded labour, prison labour, child labour, heavily exploitative labour of all sorts, we must introduce international regulation of trade in relation to these practices. The MTO and deregulation works entirely to undermine any efforts any group outside the MTO makes to end exploitation.

  This government has prided itself on its own work reforms. It has taken recent OECD comments as a strong endorsement of approval. In fact, the OECD suggested New Zealand as a more proper model and that Australian reforms had not gone far enough. It suggested that employment protection, minimum wages, long-term benefits, and social support are all bad practices that should be wound back. It was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald today as suggesting specifically that the wage floor in Australia should be wound back.

  This is not an issue separate from trade. The push for lower wages, reduced social support and reduced conditions from within the OECD is directly related to its member states' ability to compete internationally with production in nations whose competitive advantage consists largely of the ability of international corporations to exploit people and nature freely without the need to contribute anything to that nation, save the offer of jobs and the promise that starvation is the alternative. It is not an accident that the OECD was congratulating New Zealand at virtually the same time as the ILO was condemning it. Comments from both were in relation to exactly the same policies. The OECD obviously thinks that practices to break union power and to limit the ability of workers to bargain effectively is a good idea because it reduces labour costs. The ILO, on the other hand, condemns these practices for exactly the same reason.

  The Sydney Morning Herald article which highlighted the OECD report also highlighted the seeming contradiction within the opposition between its new-found concern for the growing gulf between rich and poor, and its acceptance and advocacy of policies that are guaranteed to widen that gulf. The coalition has a contradiction here. It is exactly the same contradiction that leads Senator McMullan to state support for the ILO at the same time as he states that social justice issues should be excluded from the international trade debate. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot support social justice while pursuing policies that will see social justice decline. There is a word for crying about the growing gap between rich and poor while setting up structures to increase it, and that word is hypocrisy.

  What the ILO report makes clear is that the Multilateral Trade Organisation agenda is not one where the rich nations may suffer but the poor ones gain; it is one where the workers everywhere suffer. In nations such as Thailand the condition where people will work for $20 a week is set up by exactly the same circumstances used to push wages down here. The need for international competitiveness with Vietnam is the reason the Thai government gives for not raising its basic wage. The Thais are lucky—they have a basic wage, although it is only a few dollars a day.

  It is peculiar to see the hypocrisy on trade in action. The ILO report upheld complaints by New Zealand trade unions that the nation's union laws infringed the principles of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. The Labour Minister, Doug Kidd, was reported yesterday to have said:

In directly challenging the democratic and parliamentary process of member states, the ILO risks being portrayed as a partisan advocate in domestic politics.

We note that there is no similar condemnation of the Multilateral Trade Organisation or GATT for stating exactly what nations will be able to do in terms of trade, including the attempt to impose its own intellectual property regime on the top of national law and international agreement. It appears that Mr Kidd does not understand the principle of the ILO, which is an organisation designed as an international advocate to ensure that national laws do not violate basic rights of workers as human beings. I wonder where our own diplomats and ministers stand on Mr Kidd's comments, given the support Senator McMullan gave to the ILO yesterday.

  In the Age today we see a poll on page 8 that shows that 75 per cent of people believe we should impose tariff protection. The distribution shows that 75 per cent of Labor voters and 75 per cent of coalition voters agree with this. I take this as a pretty good indication that people in Australia do not think deregulated trading is a good idea. There was, however, no discussion or distinction in that poll between the kind of open slather, enforced social deregulation we have under the Multilateral Trade Organisation or options such as the international regulation of social and environmental practices. Therefore, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions, but it is clear that most people in Australia do not favour the Multilateral Trade Organisation style of non-regulation of business and trade.

  Ultimately, using sanctions to prevent national regulation of trade, and opposing international regulation of the social and environmental aspects of trade, simply means we will see more workers everywhere working for less. We will see more child labour, more bonded labour, more exploitative migrant labour, more sweatshops, more industrial accidents, more appalling conditions, more women going blind working in electronics factories, and more workers living in shanties amidst industrial effluent. We will see more pressure everywhere for nations to lower their wages and conditions to compete and the more competitive they get, the lower the standards will become. This will affect low and middle income earners everywhere. The rich everywhere will be the beneficiaries. This is the agenda of deregulation. This is why we see a growing gulf between rich and poor in Australia and most OECD nations. The rich are becoming increasingly transnational; exploitation is currently becoming increasingly transnational.

  There is one reason why the labour market programs recently proposed by the government will largely be ineffective at improving the lot of workers. They are a means of creating a well-trained pool of job hungry unemployed rather than ways of generating employment by restructuring the economy. This will not improve the bargaining position of those already employed. The refusal of government to address the issue of exploitation of labour internationally will ensure that any weakness in the bargaining position of working people will be exploited. The OECD simply adds fuel to the fire with suggesting that wage levels and awards be dropped.

  In the context of this year's appropriations, we decry the fundamental approach outlined in the budget. The government is content to do nothing to address the fundamental problems facing this nation. It does nothing to change the structure of Australian society to guarantee that we do not continue the downward slide into a dual economy. It does nothing to ensure that there are international frameworks so that problems can be addressed without needing to isolate ourselves. In fact, it continues its cuts in services, supports OECD suggestions that lowering wages is acceptable and supports the principles that social and environmental considerations have no place in trade.

  On a slightly separate matter, I seek leave to table a document entitled Employment policy—funding options for employment, industry and regional development. This is a report commissioned by the Australian Council of Trade Unions, dated February 1994. By way of explanation, I tabled a copy of this document on 2 June 1994 which had many pages missing due to a copying fault.

  Leave granted.