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Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Page: 1233

Dr STONE (Murray) (17:34): I also rise to talk about the Customs Amendment (Anti-Dumping Commission) Bill 2013. This is a most important area of legislation for Australia, given that we export a huge proportion of our production. We have a very small domestic market—only some 22 million people. When it comes to our agriculture, we export some 60 per cent of all that we produce.

On the other hand, we have an environment where the very high Australian dollar and our tariff regime—which has minimal or non-existent tariffs, except in a few favoured industry sectors like automotive—means we are exposed to product from other countries that is often being offered at prices below the costs of production in the home country.

In 2011-2012, the total imports of foods and beverages, for example, exceeded total Australian exports by $2.8 billion. That represents a huge volume of product coming into this country, most of it from places where there is subsidy embedded in the agricultural production or where there is state managed or state owned enterprise. When it comes to bringing a case against, for example, the importation of canned tomatoes from Italy or canned peaches from Greece, it is extraordinarily difficult for an Australian manufacturer or group of growers to demonstrate quickly and clearly that they have suffered material damage and that the product they are trying to compete against in Australia has in effect or fact been dumped.

I have just come, in the last hour, from a huge meeting of dairy farmers in Tongala. This was a cry from the heart from those producers saying that it is now almost beyond their capacity to continue to produce at below the costs of production. The two major problems are the domestic market failure, with the big two duopolies, Coles and Woolworths, squeezing the price, and the imported product they have to compete against. That product is often disguised or repackaged, in Australia or New Zealand, and the price of the product—whether it is a cheese, an ice cream or some other dairy based confection—is often so low you wonder how it can possibly represent the true value of production, including the cost of its transportation into this country.

This bill tries to produce a better anti-dumping regime in Australia by introducing a new, so-called Australian Anti-Dumping Commission. The commission would take from the International Trade Remedies Branch of Customs the responsibility for investigating and pursuing anti-dumping cases. That, of course, could not be a bad thing. I am sure most people would say that, on the surface, it sounds like a reasonable idea. But it supposes that the relevant Australian industry sectors, whether they involve the manufacture of food, clothing or footwear—not that we have much of that industry left—or the production of software, have the capacity to investigate the costs of the product that they believe is being dumped. It also supposes that they are going to get sufficient assistance from the Australian Public Service to support their investigations into the true price of production in the dumping country. We cannot take any of that for granted at all.

There is a suggestion of direct additional funding of $24.4 million for the anti-dumping administration, but we are not told where this money might come from or when it might come. We know that this government is in deep, deep strife when it comes to its borrowings. It dissipated the surplus it inherited at the change of government, when John Howard's government was replaced, and there will be no surplus in this coming budget. We are deeply concerned that the $24.4 million, small as it is in the scheme of things, will not be readily found for the new anti-dumping administration. We have already seen the effects of the huge slashing and burning of the Customs and biosecurity agencies, including the corruption that is now being investigated in the importation of contraband product, particularly drugs, in Sydney. Maybe that would not have occurred if the funding for surveillance and proper scrutiny of incoming product had not been so reduced over the period of this government.

We are told that there is an expectation that the commission will be operational by the middle of 2013. Let us hope that is the case. But, if it is to come without at least $24.4 million to support the anti-dumping administration, including the prosecution of cases and tracking down of product costs in other countries, then what is the point of yet another block of administrators or public servants sitting in new chairs in a new office and calling themselves a commission?

We are a naive country when it comes to how we handle our import-export business. We pretend there is such a thing as a level playing field; we pretend there is such a thing as fair trade globally. These are great aspirations, and I would think there are few in this chamber who would not aspire to the glorious ideal of free trade, but the reality is that no such thing as free trade exists around the globe. There are growing subsidies and the use of child labour and slave labour for the production of products such as cocoa. Subsidies are not reducing. We have to have an anti-dumping regime which gives the Australian industry, company or small business all the teeth it needs to prosecute its case and to do it quickly. Too often, when I have been investigating one of these cases, they have cost too much, have taken too long and, by the time there has been some movement, the damage has been so significant that the company cannot survive.

We have here a bill which has borrowed coalition policy, of course, in establishing the commission, but it is different in that we would have had the resources to strengthen our anti-dumping regime. I also hope that someone someday will look at the business of reversing the onus of proof when it comes to establishing a case of anti-dumping for Australian enterprise. At the moment we expect the business or company that alleges antidumping to do all the hard yards: to go and investigate in a country like Thailand or China, for example. Let us take a country where states typically own the enterprises, like China.

We expect a transparent and readily revealed lists of costs—all of the details—so that the case can be built against that nation, in order for the Australian enterprise to prove the case of antidumping. Quite obviously, that is almost impossible to do. If there is a reversal of onus of proof, however, where an allegation is brought, the allegation goes through a preliminary check and is found to be worthy of investigation, then it is up to the business accused, or where the antidumping is alleged, to prove its costs to the satisfaction of something like the new Anti-Dumping Commission, and so life can go on.

At the moment it is almost impossible for an antidumping case to be brought in Australia. We pay lip-service to the concept, but it is expensive to bring a case and it is extraordinarily long-winded. The chances of you getting true costs from another country to prove your case are almost impossible. You usually have to retreat and become a less viable business, as you are overwhelmed by the unfair competition. A change in food labelling laws would assist us in this whole business of making sure that the consumer is at least more informed about where a product comes from, so if they see an extraordinarily low price they can at least check the label and see where that product came from.

At the moment our food labelling laws make it almost impossible for a consumer to know if the Australian content is just the water in the can, if it is just a little bit of food colouring added at the end of the process or if it is just the crumbing or the curing of the ham that occurred in Australia. It is impossible to really know, if you simply scan the label on the product. All of that plays into the hands of those who aim to dump product on our market.

I think we have to be more grown up about all of this. I am not implying that we wheel back in all of our tariffs; I am suggesting, though, that we live in a climate where we have to manage our trade better. We have to understand that, while we are constantly being told that there is a growing demand for fine food and manufactured food in our region, we have to be realistic about the fact that, at the moment, many Australian farmers are unable to feed themselves and they are unable to pay their bills because of unfair competition.

As I said, I have just come from a rally at Tongala, a town of just 2,000 people, and there were 600 people in the hall. They are people who have been working for nearly 18 months milking their cows seven days a week twice a day with huge costs from additional energy bills brought about, of course, by the carbon tax, the additional pharmaceutical costs and massive increases in their water costs—all of that, and they are being paid below the cost of their production as they bring some of the world's cleanest and most food-secure milk product onto the domestic market. You can understand their despair. They keep being told that if they just produce a good product, if they just work harder, they will have a future. Well, no they will not, because you cannot keep working—whatever your enterprise—when you are not able to meet your basic costs. And, of course, eventually the body wears out and your future generation of dairy farmers turn away and say, 'Why would we bother?'

This antidumping legislation, the Customs Amendment (Anti-Dumping Commission) Bill, is a very important part of the process of making a fairer and better place for our own home-grown enterprise. It is hard enough to survive in our own domestic economy, where we have such a small market and where we have such concentrated buyer power, but then there are also the unfair practices of those whose products are imported—taking advantage of our high Australian dollar and taking advantage of our more poorly resourced Customs checking at the border and our less resourced biosecurity regimes. If companies and individual enterprises keep bringing product into Australia which is below the cost of production, we are going to have to expect that there will be less home-grown product available for our shoppers to choose from in the future.

I do not think that is a very sensible prospect. I think food security has to be one of the most important issues that any nation addresses. Australia has come late to understand the concept of food security. The Labor government has produced the National Food Plan. I am afraid that antidumping did not have much of an outing in that plan. Certainly, the plan fails to address the extraordinarily difficult economic environment that our food and fibre producers must struggle in to make ends meet in this country.

So I do not oppose the establishment of a so-called Australian Anti-Dumping Commission, but I am concerned that the $24.4 million actually materialises and is dedicated to this commission if it is to be established by the middle of 2013. It will be a farce if all we get is another name on a door and another lot of highly paid, specially appointed commissioners while Rome continues to burn.