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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 19994

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (1:31 PM) —Of all Australian political parties, Labor has had a unique relationship with China for over 30 years. In July 1971, the then opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, made a historic visit to China, advancing the argument that Australia should establish diplomatic relations with China. Instead of being applauded by the then Liberal-Country Party government, Whitlam was heavily criticised by them for making friends with Communist China. This criticism was, of course, quelled very shortly after, when President Nixon made the same journey in February 1972. But the McMahon government still made no moves to establish diplomatic ties. It took 16 days after the election of the Whitlam government in 1972 for Australia to formally establish diplomatic ties with China.

Given the limited time I have on this matter this afternoon, I will devote my attention to our developing relationship with China and the importance of multilateral agreements, as well as bilateral agreements. In April last year the Labor leader, speaking in Beijing, laid down five principles that we believe could be used to assist our relationship with China: to form the foundation of a possible future Australia-China treaty; to enhance economic complementarities to assist development priorities and to assist Australian exports in areas such as info-technology, tourism and financial services; to develop the bilateral relationship as a building block to a new regional partnership, consistent with the objectives of APEC and the World Trade Organisation; to be established through a leadership dialogue; and to provide a vehicle for closer government-to-government and business-to-business relations. More than ever before China is the key to two of the biggest issues confronting the Asia-Pacific region: the future of regional economic integration and the future of strategic stability.

I had the great privilege recently of being part of a delegation of senators and members—all members of the Australia-China Friendship Group—to visit China earlier this year. Building upon the diplomatic ties and the growing development in trade of 30 or more years, our visit added another strand to these ties that bind. In the areas of trade, Australia is now among the top 10 sources of imports into China, and we are the 13th largest country in exports from China. Although most of our trade exports to China come from agricultural and mining industries, there is a growing interest in other areas, which I referred to earlier. As the Labor leader has already indicated, there are three general areas where our relations with China should be enhanced through the signing of an Australia-China treaty—in bilateral, regional and multilateral forms of closer cooperation. These areas are not mutually exclusive but complementary. It is a pity, however, that the government and its members who have moved the motion before us this afternoon have focused only upon bilateral agreements and have shown little interest in realising the valuable multilateral trade access through the World Trade Organisation Doha Round.

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR —The member for Flinders is now attempting to interrupt. Obviously he wants to advance his arguments. Effectively, he said the multilateral agreements are too difficult and too complex—for this government anyway—to establish. The fact remains that we need multilateral arrangements and regional cooperation to ensure that we have successful trade relations and other forms of relationships with countries in our region. A case in point is the collapse of the World Trade Organisation trade talks in Cancun. This is very bad news for our farmers and underlines the influence of Australia as leader of the Cairns Group of trading nations.

It would appear Australia was caught napping when developing nations—angered by what they saw as the hypocrisy of the developed nations that insist upon open market access but refuse to dismantle costly and trade distorting domestic producer support—established a G21 group. Bilateral agreements are important, but right now Australia needs a government that will focus on building a coalition of developing countries and efficient food producers. Senator O'Brien, currently in Mexico for the trade talks, is right when he says that the opportunity was missed by the Howard government. This motion is right: bilateral agreements are important; but, in the end, multilateral arrangements and regional cooperation are so much more important.