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Monday, 22 September 1997
Page: 6595


Senator MARGETTS(6.13 p.m.) —There has been an expectation over time that the Industry Commission produces reports which tend to project the interests of large industries and corporations. We have to understand that these days large corporations are rarely simply based in one country. Even Australia's largest corporations generally have interests overseas, or are controlled or owned to a substantial extent by overseas operators.

The interesting thing is that almost none of the assessments have been very thorough in relation to such things as the impact of free trade. It is a real pity that, this far down the track since the agreements in 1994, we as a country have not done a thorough assessment of the impact of the free trade agreement we signed up to back then. I would love to see a systematic approach—even in footwear, clothing and textiles—to look at the impacts on consumers. We cannot just look at the price, although that is important; we have to look at the range and choice that people have.

From the consumer's point of view, we have also got to look at whether or not the things that they could get before, the kinds of outlets that they could access before, are still able to be accessed. We have also, in my opinion, got to look at such things as whether or not with so-called free trade we actually do have a free market in distribution.

I have mentioned on a number of occasions that in the textiles, clothing and footwear industries it matters not a pin that some people are being paid $1 a day or $2 dollars a day to produce, say, a Nike shoe. It matters not a pin if there is a monopoly in distribution and marketing which means that there are huge profits. Those huge profits are not necessarily made in Australia; they might be made elsewhere. It matters that the consumers are not necessarily getting a better deal out of so-called free trade and that the consumers are not getting a better deal out of exploiting very low wages in whichever country pays the lowest wage.

It concerns me greatly that the overall impact of free trade has not been looked at. This includes whether or not people have the ability to buy the goods and services that they need in their daily lives. It should never be forgotten that this is part of the process. It is not just about free trade; it is about free investment policies, and it is almost gloves off, no rules. Once more and more of the companies that have been operating in a country like Australia are swallowed up, then they control the markets. They can actually tell consumers what it is they need and want, because not too many people will be able to stand up against them and offer an alternative. This goes to the very basics of our existence; the very basics of processed food, hardware and many of the goods and services that we use.

The irony here is that we have a so-called commitment to free trade, but we do not have a commitment to make sure that that trade really is fair. It seems to me that there has been no real indication whether there is anything at all in the mythical level playing field. Most people, when they look at it carefully, will realise there is not.

When companies and services are swallowed up it generally leads to a oligopoly, or eventually a monopoly, which means that the consumers are the ones that lose. If it is an oligopoly in distribution—it often is with the textiles, clothing and footwear industries—what is the real impact on consumers? I put it to you that not only do they not necessarily pay lower prices but also they end up, in my opinion, with fewer choices in types and styles and in those things which are not necessarily moving at the same level as other things are moving.

We are going down the track of so-called international competitiveness, but when that translates to a local market it means that those people who need special fittings in shoes, clothing and so on have few choices. They might have to go further. The little shops that used to be able to service their needs are no longer able to survive.

We need to look—it is well overdue—at the impacts of internationalisation and globalisation on Australia. At the very least, we need to look fully and comprehensively at the consumer impact. I would argue that we also need to look at the impact on jobs. We need to look at the overall impact on the cost of living. We need to look at the balance of trade. We also need to look at such things as the environmental impact of free trade. We also need to look at the idea that you can push down the margins on many of those goods and services, and the fact that people have to produce more and more of these goods and services to get the same return.

I would put to you that that love affair with free trade has never been properly analysed in Australia. The textiles, clothing and footwear industries are screaming examples of the lack of detailed analysis. It is time for government entities to do this. I do not mean entities like the Industry Commission. I think it is time that the government realised we do need to put some effort into this. We are three years down the track. It is well overdue for us to assess Australia's commitment to international free trade and tariff reductions, and also the impact of the changes in access to investment and the ability of companies to take over entire industries.

Whether the impacts are on the textiles, clothing and footwear industries or whether they are on other industries, it is time that we looked at those impacts. In the end we could become a country which seems to be simply a quarry or a farm at the expense of our environment. We cannot wait until we get to the point of being an arid, dusty, polluted mess and then realise that we have gone the wrong way, because future generations will pay for that in money and in the amenities in their real lives.

We just had a debate on greenhouse. It seems to me that a lot of the debate on free trade is also about the kinds of options we are giving ourselves, and whether or not we are moving to the point where it seems that there are fewer and fewer choices except dirty and polluting industries and value adding industries serving the basic needs of society. Those basic needs are food, clothing and shelter. If we cannot produce those in Australia, then we ought to be looking very carefully at why not, what we can do about serving the needs of consumers and workers, and the industries producing those basic food, clothing and shelter needs in Australia.

Question resolved in the affirmative.