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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20562

Mr CAMERON THOMPSON (10:54 AM) —I would also like to pay credit to the work of the Trade Subcommittee on this issue. It was a real eye-opener for me to be part of the delegation that visited Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia. That was the journey that I went on; others within the group also visited Bulgaria and Romania. The total group included members of the House of Representatives—David Hawker, Geoff Prosser, David Jull and Bruce Baird—and members of the Senate—Senator Eggleston and Senator Ferguson.

I think it was really astounding that so many members of the House and of the Senate were prepared to pay their own way on a trip. From a general Australian perspective, if you are going to investigate great opportunities for trade, many Australians would say, `We haven't heard an awful lot about places like Ljubljana or Bratislava.' These are places that, because of the historical connection and the intervention of the Eastern bloc and the old USSR, have been so cut off from the majority of Australians for so long that that would seem to be a fairly obscure way to go.

As I said, this trip was an eye-opener to me. When we arrived, I saw the number and range of opportunities that were available. I saw the future of that region and its potential, and the impact that that region is going to have on the EU when those places—not all of them—gradually gain accession. We have a line-up of them at the moment, all seeking accession to the EU. When those economies mix in with the existing wealth of western Europe, there is going to be an explosion of economic development in that area. It absolutely commands us to turn our focus to that area. So I think the work of this committee is just absolutely fantastic.

I would like to highlight some of the issues that I saw. Each of us found things that were different and saw different opportunities. It seemed that every corner you went around there was something to look at, something different, and something that you could see that by linking with an Australian enterprise there would be a joint benefit. Firstly, I would like to look at tourism. We have such a well-developed tourism industry in Australia. There is a good recommendation in the report about the way we have developed tourism industry training. Our universities have successfully developed that, and we are now marketing Australian tourism to the world. We are probably one of the most successful tourism marketers anywhere on the face of the earth at the moment because people know about Australia and they want to have a part of it.

Croatia has a beautiful coastline, but we did not get to visit it; we went to Zagreb. The opportunity offered by the full length of that coastline for tourism, with the whole population of Europe just a short distance away, is just mind-boggling. It may be 150 to 200 kilometres away from tens of millions of people, all with huge disposable incomes, and here you are with this beautiful coastline. If Australian tourist operators cannot see an opportunity to develop links and resorts, such as the one that the member for Prospect and the member for Fadden were talking about—the one at Split—then they are blind. There is just so much opportunity to develop the Croatian coastline and to develop tourism infrastructure.

The other place of great interest in that regard is Slovenia. Slovenia not only has an extension of that coastline but also has the Alps. Everyone knows about the Austrian Alps, but the Austrian Alps do have another side to them, and that is the Slovenian side. And it is every bit as spectacular. The opportunities for skiing and all those sorts of things are every bit as dramatic there as they are on the Austrian side. I suspect most people in Australia would not have given a thought to the existence of the Slovenian Alps and the things that they offer. Once again, this is a great opportunity for Australian tourism expertise, for us to develop links over time and for our enterprises here to develop enterprises there.

Something I thought about also in Slovenia is that from a Slovenian port—I am not sure of its name; I have not written that down in my notes—you can hop on a fast ferry and go straight to Venice. That just shows how close these communities are to one another. When you have this beautiful, big coastline, those Alps and a direct link to a tourism mecca like Venice, it really is right in the centre. We are talking about a report in relation to central Europe, but when we say `central' Europe it really is fantastically central. From all those tourism development opportunities, there is a big market.

From an Australian point of view, I think one of the greatest opportunities would be the development of our fast aluminium ferries such as the ones down at Incat and at Austal Ltd in Perth. Those are stunning ferries. As the boom takes off all along that coast—the tourism boom that is bound to happen—there will be great opportunities for Australian ferries. However, there are some problems in that regard because Croatia have a traditional shipbuilding industry. Their industry has been focused on the old style of ships which are a lot slower, a lot bigger and are made not of aluminium but of steel—very large ships. They have been successful in years gone by in providing tourism services. However, today people really want fast aluminium catamarans of the type that we build in Australia. It is going to be a challenge for Australian companies to break through and get that news to those people. If they can do that, there is going to be a tremendous demand for those vessels, and something that I think could bring great benefits within Australia.

To a lesser extent there are also opportunities for tourism and skiing in the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. Outside of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, there is a great deal of unemployment. In the past, the huge work force was employed within the old Soviet tank-making factories. They no longer have those jobs because they do not exist anymore. The factories have gone. There is a large skilled population with no jobs, and there is not a lot happening. Tourism development in the Tatra Mountains, for example, would provide a great opportunity. As we have seen, and as the members for Prospect and Fadden also discussed, we now have car manufacturers moving in and taking advantage of that skilled work force. Once again this just shows how the European economy is going to take off when these countries get accession. You are talking about wages in these places that are about an eighth, or even less, of those in other countries in western Europe, and yet these economies are so central to Europe. They can move their operations directly to those countries, and they can get those benefits. I think it will dramatically assist that European economy to grow.

I want to thank the ambassadors, the staff from Austrade and the groups that assisted us along the way. In Poland and the Czech Republic we were assisted by Ambassador Patrick Lawless and his staff, and in Hungary we were assisted by Ambassador Leo Cruise. Speaking about tourism, Budapest is a very beautiful city. There are huge opportunities for that city to command growth and development, for people to invest in it, and that applies to Australians who might want to go and invest there too. Just as I have indicated our tourism expertise can assist in a places like Croatia, Slovenia or Slovakia, I think we also have an opportunity to be able to do something in Hungary. The Czech Republic has already hit the market, there is no doubt about that. People from all over Europe are going to Prague, and it is booming along.

The member for Fadden spoke about the exotic Australian meats that are in demand in Hungary. The thing that got me was the demand for kangaroo meat. I want to quote a little from page 32 of the report:

Kangaroo meat, which is used in sausages, salami, pate and other gourmet-processed foods, is so popular that supply has not kept up with demand as restaurants in Prague increasingly include kangaroo meat on their menus.

Kangaroo meat is in big demand. I really like kangaroo meat. I think it is an undiscovered taste that commends itself. If you ask me, the people in the Czech Republic have the right attitude towards kangaroo meat consumption. Similarly, in Croatia I found great demand for our beef products. There is a great awareness there and concern about the danger of BSE. Making sausages is a big traditional industry there and Australian beef is what they want. They love Australian beef. The more Australian beef that they can get the better. That is a big opportunity for us, but that again raises the question of the impact of the accession into the EU.

Let us consider accession to the EU. One of the things that I think presents itself as an opportunity at the moment is that absolutely hundreds of millions of euro are going to be pumped into these countries seeking accession under the EU arrangements. When they get accession, the amount of money that flows in to support the development of infrastructure in those countries is just amazing. When members of the committee visited Poland, we travelled from Warsaw to Lodz—Lodz being the second-biggest city in the whole of Poland. Lodz is a large city, 120 kilometres from Warsaw. Travelling the road from Warsaw to Lodz is absolutely instructive about how absolutely woeful the road infrastructure there is. The road toll is in its thousands, and I am not surprised. For about 50 kilometres of the trip we were on a four-lane divided highway, but not once did it have an on ramp or an off ramp, so semitrailers were doing U-turns on a four-lane divided highway, blocking three of the four lanes while they were lined up to try and drive their way around the median strip and come back down the other way. It was bedlam. Once we turned off the highway, we were on a road and, honestly, if I were to pick the road in my electorate between Kingaroy and Nanango as a comparison, I would say that it is in better nick than this one. It is wider. People in Nanango would say that our roads are horrible, but, boy, if they lived in Warsaw or Lodz they would really find out about horrible roads. On top of them being narrow and windy, they also go through little villages, and so you are stopping every five minutes to give way to people pushing their prams, and the B-double trucks are stopping while they are providing this important economic link.

I think there is tremendous opportunity in Slovenia. They have solved this road infrastructure problem locally by going to toll roads. You can see, for example, that Australian road building consortiums might want to contest some of the money that comes out under the accession. I am sure there is a big preference clause for those European consortiums, but I do not see why we should not get out there. Those countries can recognise a good deal when they see it. I am sure that our road builders are very competitive—we certainly produce a good product. Organisations such as good old Macquarie Bank, and others, might want to fund such projects on the understanding of there being perhaps a toll road connection. I am sure that there are great opportunities over there for that sort of thing. If you look at the way they have gone about it in Slovenia, it is very effective. It is helping their links with Croatia into that region. That is zooming ahead.

An interesting issue that I ran across in Hungary is the potential for Australian coal to go over there. Australia has lots of good, clean coal. Many of these countries have been getting their coal from Poland under the old Soviet arrangements. That coal is dirty and it is not up to the quality that is needed; it is certainly not up to EU type standards. They need alternative sources of coal. They are going to have to provide a great deal of electricity to run car building industries and they need alternative sources of coal. I was speaking to a fellow in Hungary about this matter. If you look at the map, we are talking about an area that is completely landlocked. How do you get the coal there? Of course, one of the big issues is the River Danube. That has had its difficulties. It has been blocked because of war and whatnot at times, but the Hungarians are looking at opening it up. They would like to be able to buy coal from Australia and take it all the way to the Black Sea. You have to go through the Bosporus and right up into the Black Sea, and then trans-ship it onto barges and take it up the Danube. If you follow the Danube, there is now a connection between the Danube and the Rhine and the whole of that area can be accessed by river. I have filled my entire time. I have found a great deal to inspire growth over there. I commend the report and everybody on their interest in central Europe.