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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20559

Mrs CROSIO (10:39 AM) —At the outset, I would like to commend the government on listening to reason and bringing reports such as this before the Committee. When this second chamber was originally established, it was to make sure that members of parliament had the opportunity to talk about and debate the types of committees that many of our members spend a year or two investigating and putting together. We do not often have that opportunity and that is why I am so pleased that commonsense is finally prevailing and that we are going to start having a lot more reports such as this before the Main Committee for debate.

I am very pleased to be able to speak on what I believe is a very interesting report by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. I could not agree more with the committee's recommendations. What we require Australia to do is to expand our trade and investment with countries of central Europe. I have always been a firm believer in Australia making a greater effort to improve our trade and investment relationships with the states of Europe. With our strong community ties to Europe, Australia has splendid opportunities to establish strong networks. That is in the report very clearly. Of the countries mentioned in the report, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia have been approved to join the European Union in 2004. Only the other day the people of Estonia voted overwhelmingly to join the EU, joining with the Czechs, the Lithuanians, the Poles and the Slovenes, who earlier this year gave a strong endorsement to join the EU.

These nations' accession to the EU will have ramifications for trade with these countries. However, as the report discusses at length, we should as a nation be developing policies to make Australia an alternative trading partner. I support the first recommendation of the committee which states:

The Government should provide funding for scholarship places for Central European postgraduate students, to assist in raising the profile of Australia and Australian educational facilities.

I am a passionate believer in Australia doing more to sell itself as a provider of educational services to the world. I truly believe that we have the capability to establish a niche in this market. That is why I am astounded when the government slashes funding to the tertiary sector, as it not only affects young Australians—who are our main priority—but also damages our ability to earn large export dollars in the education field.

Australia would be an excellent destination for postgraduate students. Firstly, the students from these other countries are keen to learn and master the English language. English is the lingua franca at the present time, and Australia is seen as providing high educational standards; world-class facilities; a cost of living which is certainly cheaper than that of the UK or the US, which are our competitors; great weather—never ending sunlight, according to our European friends; and a lifestyle that is the envy of the world. Added to this are the communities that have been long established in Australia who would be only too willing to provide these postgraduate students a welcoming hand.

As I was preparing this speech, I examined the latest figures prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade regarding our bilateral trade and investment with each of the countries mentioned in the report. Trade with all of these countries is small—in fact tiny in some respects. They are all recent additions to the liberal democracy club, with the figures indicating that they have a long way to go before they are prosperous nations. The wealthiest in terms of per capita GDP, as mentioned by the honourable member for Fadden, is Slovenia, which is the former Yugoslav state that has always embraced a more entrepreneurial approach and attempted to tie itself closer to the West in terms of ideology and economics. Even so, Slovenia has a problem with inflation, which is running at over five per cent, and with unemployment levels of over 11 per cent. Poland is the largest economy in this group, but it is still relatively poor in Western terms. A big worry for Poland and the EU is its terrible unemployment rate, which is climbing now towards 20 per cent.

Even though some of these statistics are disturbing, countries like Australia should be embracing these nations into the liberal democratic world. After half a century of inefficient communist industry and, before that, political and social instability, this is a time of great opportunity for central Europe and for Australia. As I have said, our trade with these nations is negligible. Interestingly, we have merchandise trade deficits with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Slovenia, whilst we have surpluses with Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania. Our investment levels could be, and should be, far greater. Most of our exports with these nations are in agriculture, mainly wool. Our imports tend to be in the manufacturing sector, ranging from furniture and toys to woodwork and machinery.

If you wanted to portray stereotypes from statistics, you would swear that Australia was still a farm and a quarry and that central Europe was full of factories. That is even more reason for Australia to change its strategies in central Europe and to expand opportunities for other export industries. I am not foolish enough to suggest that Australia will be a huge player in this part of the world. With a number of these countries joining the EU, their closest and most important relationships will of course be with the great economies such as Germany, France, Italy and the UK. However, as a nation we should never lose sight of an opportunity to expand our share in the global marketplace.

The committee mentioned in its report that there is the notion of a `market failure' between Australia and central Europe. Recommendation 12 attempts to rectify this by asserting that Austrade should educate businesses in Australia about the market opportunities that are available in central Europe, as well as providing an education program on what is required to operate in the region. I welcome this recommendation. Austrade has done a fantastic job in promoting Australia to the world, particularly Asia, so it is pertinent that Austrade be provided with the resources to assist it in promoting Australia to central Europe. The education process—for them and the world—must begin, and begin in earnest.

I also agree with the committee that a trade mission led by the Minister for Trade should visit the region so as to provide a major political impetus for expanding our relationships. I can understand that businesses may be reluctant to invest in central Europe. It was interesting that the honourable member for Fadden mentioned a Croatian who was investing in Split. That Croatian was actually born in Australia of Croatian heritage and happens to be a constituent of mine. Jim Bosnjak and his family will not mind me mentioning his name here, because we are very proud of what he is endeavouring to do. We certainly wish him well in the remodelling of that hotel, which I understand will be second to none in that part of the world.

There is a perception that the bureaucratic infrastructure of the former Eastern bloc, with all its associated inefficiencies, remains. Added to this is the belief that the notion of governance and respect for the rule of law is perhaps not as strong as investors and traders would like. The report notes that corruption remains a particular problem in Bulgaria and Romania, which may be a major reason why these countries are slightly behind the other nations in the accession process, whilst Slovenia, Hungary and Poland have taken great strides to improve their governance.

Another point I wish to make concerns the committee's recommendation for the Australian government to reopen the embassy in Prague. I recall being astounded when the government sold the embassy. As the committee has established, an embassy in Prague is of strong strategic importance for Australia. Prague is the centre of central Europe and would be able to act as a bridge, in effect, between the emerging and developed nations of Europe.

I have also been of the opinion for a long while now that the visa requirements imposed upon a number of these central European nations are onerous. The Czech Embassy has noted its concerns in this report, and I trust that the government will consider these concerns accordingly. Upon accession next year I am hopeful that these requirements will be reassessed, for at the present time our less than helpful system is being replicated towards us. Therefore, a review would be of significant assistance to both sides.

I conclude by commending the committee on its report. It is an opportune time to reassess where Australian trade policy should be heading. The potential is there in central Europe, which is an emerging market, for new opportunities for those who are willing to show a bit of entrepreneurial endeavour. This report has succeeded in opening the debate, and I hope that the government takes heed of the recommendations and does all it can to enable our exporters and investors access to greater opportunities.

In the limited time I have left to me there are a number of other points I would like to touch on. As the member for Fadden mentioned, the committee members visited Croatia. Croatia of course will not join the European Union in 2004, and they are endeavouring to make sure that they will be there for the next intake. I met recently with the government of Croatia and particularly with the agriculture minister, who was very keen to have beef come from Australia and be used to make meat products in Croatia. His desire was to have these meat products on the market in both Australia and Croatia. It is very interesting.

There is another area that I was delighted about. I was sitting with a number of Croatian government members and saying that their educational facilities could be greater with an input from Australia. I recently met the Croatian education minister, who was out here. As you realise, Mr Deputy Speaker, some years ago a chair of Croatian studies was established at Macquarie University. That took the determination of a particular professor who was born in Croatia but who came out and made Australia his home and realised that the Croatian people out here were losing a lot of the mother language. This is a way in which we are able provide postgraduate courses that are a plus for our country with Croatia.

I was very pleased with the enthusiasm that Croatia has shown in trying to encourage greater representation with Australia, particularly in the trade area. People say that we are a long way away and that really Asia is our market. I have always believed that too, but with modern transport and the facility with which we can move our goods today I do not think that distance should any longer be one of the things that stop us doing trade with central Europe. We have a vast market there. We have certainly overcome a number of difficulties that we had in trading with China. Looking at how they are gradually adopting a more and more entrepreneurial approach, I believe that each one of these countries, both individually and now collectively through the European Union, has been able to establish a `trademark' for where they hope to go in the future.

As I said in the report, our statistics on trading with these countries are not great. But perhaps through reports such as this, through our knowledge and, more importantly, through our contacts, through Austrade, as I have mentioned, and in particular through our embassies, we can start expanding and can build up a greater exchange of import and export goods. We are all parochial and, from Australia's point of view, I hope that it is more export from our country, but I understand the trade aspect of it and I believe that we can also assist these countries with our imports coming in at a greater level.

I re-emphasise that, if we want to have ambassadors to the world and we want to be proud of Australia and we want to have Australia's voice heard, there is nothing better than bringing students in here to do postgraduate courses, because they then go away with an impression of how great this country is and they become ambassadors for us when they go back to their country of birth.

I encourage the government to not just read the report. I am not being critical and trying to be political, but I think this report needs more than rhetoric. It needs more than just being read and shelved; it needs action. The committee members have put a lot of work into it. There are a number of reports coming from the foreign affairs committee—and I sat on the committee for a time—and I believe that what they are saying is what we should be following. Too often we see reports pigeonholed. Too often we see reports read, congratulated, commented upon and no action taken. Now is the time for governments of all political persuasions to heed committees and their reports and to provide the wherewithal to implement their recommendations. These recommendations were not lightly or frivolously put together. They were put together with a lot of hard work and good intent, and now it is up to the government to make sure that that intent becomes a reality so that Australia can prosper and, more particularly, so that we can become a greater voice in the countries of central Europe that need our help.