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Wednesday, 15 August 2012
Page: 8759


Mr KEENAN (Stirling) (17:02): I rise to speak on the Customs Tariff Amendment (2012 Measures No. 1) Bill. The purpose of this bill is to make amendments to the Customs Tariff Act 1995 to list Serbia as a developing country for the purposes of the Australian System of Tariff Preferences. The bill will also reinsert a subheading applicable to coir yarn and correct a number of technical errors contained within the customs tariff.

The bill will amend the Customs Tariff Act 1995 to incorporate alterations that were contained in Customs Tariff Proposal (No. 1) 2012, tabled in the House on 16 February 2012, as follows. There is the re-insertion of subheading 5308.10.00, applicable to coir yarn. For members who are not aware, coir yarn is typically used in the manufacture or ropes and mats. Different varieties of coir yarn are used for geo-textile manufacturing. The yarn is made from fibre extracted from coconut husks. The other amendment, and possibly the more significant one, is to list Serbia as a developing country for the purposes of the Australian system of tariff preferences. Finally, the bill will correct a number of technical errors in the customs tariff that have occurred as a result of drafting or clerical mistakes. Notably, the first two parts of the bill were previously given effect through the tabling of Customs Tariff Proposal (No. 1) 2012 in the House in February this year. The remaining amendments in the bill correct the technical errors I referred to.

The bill lists Serbia as a developing country, which is consistent with Australia's approach to other states that were formerly part of Yugoslavia. Total trade with Serbia equates to approximately $14.1 million per year. As I was discussing with the member for Hughes as we walked into the chamber, that seems relatively low for a country that has such good people-to-people links with Australia. Both my electorate and the electorate of the member for Hughes, and, I think, the electorate of the member for Fowler, contain large Serbian populations.

Generally, when there are larger populations of people who have emigrated to Australia, or the children and grandchildren of immigrants to Australia, you would expect those people-to-people links to result in trading opportunities between the two countries. That is certainly the case for a lot of other immigrant groups within my electorate, which have very good trading links between countries where there are large populations of recent migrants or the descendants of migrants who hailed from that particular area. It seems to me that there is the ability for us to increase our trade with Serbia from the level it is at the moment. We in the coalition will continue to support having good and effective links with Serbia to ensure that we can maximise trading opportunities between the two nations.

We are debating this bill at a time when mainstream Customs officers, who deal with these tariff issues, are suffering incredibly badly from the cuts the Labor Party have made to Customs since they came to office. Those cuts are both funding cuts, which have occurred in almost every budget, and personnel cuts, which again have occurred in almost every budget. This comes at a time when the resources of Customs have been stretched enormously by their having to deal with our border protection crisis in the north of the country. At the same time as they are struggling to cope with the pressures of this influx of illegal boat arrivals, the Labor Party have consistently rolled back Customs funding and cut personnel. In the 2009-10 budget, Labor cut 220 staff from Customs. In the following year they cut a further 250 staff. That was followed by a 90-person staff cut in the 2011-12 budget.

At a time when Customs are really at breaking point because of those significant personnel cuts, coupled with those funding cuts, Labor decided in this year's budget to cut another 190 staff from the agency. That is a total of 750 staff that have been cut from Customs since the Labor Party came to office. Clearly, this agency is struggling to cope with the responsibilities that it has, and that is why we are seeing criminals getting a leg-up in being able to bring things across our borders that should not be here, such as illegal weapons and drugs or the precursors to drugs.

These personnel cuts have occurred in conjunction with funding cuts—$58.1 million was slashed from the cargo screening program, which, as I said, makes it easier for criminals to get stuff across Australia's borders that should not be here. When the Howard government left office, 66 per cent of air cargo consignments were inspected when they came into Australia. The number of air cargo consignments inspected is now down 74 per cent because of this cut, meaning that criminals have a better chance of getting stuff into Australia.

Sea cargo inspections have been reduced by 25 per cent, and this is coming at a time when agencies such as the Australian Crime Commission openly acknowledge that organised criminal gangs are taking advantage of the lax conditions on our wharves and are exploiting weaknesses in the system to further their criminal enterprises—a fact, might I say, that the member for Fowler has picked up on in his chairmanship of his committee, which has done some very important work looking at security at our wharves and our airports.

Another area where mainstream Customs has been slugged is in facilitating passengers through our airports. Clearly, this is problematic for the tourism industry, as the member for Paterson, who is in the chamber, would know. But it also affects our people-to-people links with other countries, because if you are waiting 90 minutes when you come into Australia then clearly you are not getting a very good first impression and it is a big disincentive to come here. But Labor hit Customs with a $34 million cut to passenger facilitation, and they axed a further $10.4 million from the program at a time when passenger numbers into Australia are expected to increase from 32 million to 38 million over the next four years.

That is just a small example of the cuts that have been made to Customs. I thought I would highlight some of those, in light of the fact that we are discussing changes to the customs tariff arrangements for Australia, in relation to Serbia in particular with this bill. Clearly, this is an agency that is going to struggle to cope with the pressures that are placed on it with these significant funding and personnel cuts that the Labor Party has visited on them since the government changed in 2007.

But the contents of this bill are not controversial in themselves. As I said, the opposition supports broadening as much as possible our relationship with Serbia. It is a country with very good links to Australia, through people who have immigrated here, particularly through previous generations. And obviously we have no objections to the tidying up that this bill does to some clerical and drafting errors that have been spotted within customs legislation. We therefore do not oppose the passage of this bill through the House today.