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Tuesday, 3 August 2004
Page: 25335


Senator KEMP (Minister for the Arts and Sport) (1:14 PM) —I too wish to speak in the debate on the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004. I make the point, as I am required to do, that I am speaking as an individual senator and not as a minister. I understand that my speaking as a minister could lead to views that this contribution would close the debate on these bills.

Having clarified my position, let me say that I listened carefully to the first two speakers in the debate, Senator O'Brien and Senator Ridgeway. Senator Ridgeway, I have to say that I am sorry that you have decided to adopt such an extremist position and to put such extremist views which are so poorly based. This is a government that rigorously pursues the national interest of this country. This government does not sign any treaty that in any way compromises the national interest of this country. I was interested to hear the Centre Left complain about this issue. I have now been in this chamber for over 14 years and I have seen Labor governments sign treaty after treaty which impinged on the sovereignty of this nation, and there was nary a word, Senator Ridgeway, from the party you belong to. Happily, this government put in the process by which treaties can be more rigorously assessed.

Senator O'Brien, gosh, what a mess the Labor Party have got themselves into. What an absolutely hopeless mess. The Labor Party laboured mightily for five months and could not make up their minds. They had the left, the right, the centre right and the centre nothings—all of them—having a view on this free trade agreement. After all this effort, after all this division, what have they produced? I will tell you what they have produced: severe question marks over the leadership of Mark Latham. That is what they have produced. Mr Latham, the leader of the Labor Party, was meant to give the Labor Party a new look. What we have seen over the last five months is vacillation and an incapacity to make a decision on an issue which is of fundamental importance to Australia, and I think that is the conclusion the Australian community are reaching. Yes, when you are in government you occasionally have to make tough decisions. John Howard, our Prime Minister, has a wonderful record of being able to take tough decisions and stick with them. Mr Latham, the new boy on the block, has made an absolute botch of this process.

I do not want to be entirely critical of the Labor Party because I think we should give some credit to Senator Conroy in this area. Senator Conroy was one of the famous `roosters', so named by Mr Latham because of his support for Mr Beazley. This rooster is entitled to crow. He has made sure that, in the end, Mr Mark Latham—as we all predicted he would from day one—supported the free trade agreement. Senator Conroy made the case for that. I certainly do not agree with everything Senator Conroy says, but I will say this: Senator Conroy is a strong supporter of the free trade agreement. He was faced by the Left of his party—by Senator O'Brien and others—and in the end Senator Conroy, the famous rooster, carried the day. I think we have to acknowledge that.

Where has this debate led? It has led to the Labor Party going around playing to different constituencies. The shadow business ministers have been saying to business groups: `Don't worry about what the Left are saying. The Labor Party will support the free trade agreement.' That is what they said privately. That led to the other shadow ministers going around to other groups—and Senator Lundy is one who immediately springs to mind—and saying, `Don't worry, the Labor Party will never sign the free trade agreement.' Senator O'Brien can correct me if I am wrong but I remember that Senator Lundy said that the Labor Party would not sign the free trade agreement if there was not a cultural carve-out. That was Senator Lundy on the record. Senator Lundy went around month after month pretending to her constituencies in the cultural area that the Labor Party would not sign this free trade agreement. I had a debate a couple of weeks ago with Senator Lundy, and she got up and ran the old Labor Party lines that it was going to do immense damage. It was absolute nonsense, but she ran those arguments. I got up and said, `Senator Lundy, I've heard you, but the truth of the matter is that the Labor Party will be supporting this agreement.'

The Labor Party has been caught out. The Labor Party has shown a dreadful lack of capacity to govern itself. The Labor Party has shown a lack of capacity to reach tough decisions. I do not think they are tough decisions. For heaven's sake, an agreement which will provide such an important boost to the Australian economy—that is, $6 billion a year when it fully comes into play—is hardly not in the interests of the Australian economy.


Senator O'Brien —You will support our amendments, will you?


Senator KEMP —Don't you try to interject, Senator O'Brien. You are now supporting the free trade agreement. You were running lines for five months that you were not going to support it. Now I am agreeing with you and you are agreeing me that you should support the free trade agreement, and basically the Labor Party has made a complete goose of itself. The public out there will say, `Fortunately, it has been dragged kicking and screaming to finally supporting the free trade agreement, which is a good thing.' The public will like that. But then the public will ask: `Why did we go through this for five months? Why was Mr Latham unable to reach a clear decision on this issue? Why were Labor shadow ministers going around pretending to groups that they would never sign the free trade agreement? Why? Why? Why?' The reason is that the Labor Party is incapable of really pursuing the national interest, is hopelessly divided and finally had to listen to Senator Conroy—and I have given all credit to him for finally bringing a touch of commonsense to the Labor Party. How Senator Conroy will be dealt with in Victoria, I do not know. History will show that Senator Kim Carr and the Left run Victoria. There is no doubt in my mind that Senator Conroy will be targeted for what he has done, and we can all make a judgment on that.

The fact of the matter is that the free trade agreement is profoundly in Australia's national interest. That is why the Liberal-National Party coalition has strongly supported it, that is why farming interests support it, that is why manufacturing interests support and—Senator O'Brien, guess what?—that is why all the Labor premiers support it too. All the Labor premiers support this agreement. I refer you to the recent remarks of Premier Beattie in an article urging the Labor Party to get on with it, as he would. Why wouldn't he be frustrated after five long months of the Labor Party finding it difficult to make up its mind? I think the public will draw its conclusions. The public will decide that this party, poorly led as it is, was unable to deal with an issue of national importance in a sensible fashion.

Let me now make some remarks on the cultural sector. This is an area that has been the subject of some debate, which has been referred to by a number of speakers. Let me make this clear: the government has retained the necessary flexibility to support the cultural sector and to regulate audiovisual media to meet our cultural policy objectives now and into the future. It is unfortunate that recent reporting in the media has been fuelled by misinformation, coming largely from the Labor Party. It has been caught out. Having fuelled the misinformation, the Labor Party now has to explain why it has suddenly done one of the world's great backflips and is now supporting the free trade agreement.

In the time available I would like to dispel some of the misconceptions that may still exist. First, I would like to emphasise that, as part of the negotiating process, the government undertook full consultation with representatives of the cultural sector, including members of the film and television industry. I believe we kept the sector informed of outcomes as the negotiations progressed. This was part of our commitment to keep the process open.

In terms of the impact of the agreement on the cultural sector, the government has fully retained the capacity to support its national institutions and agencies. This means, regardless of what Senator Lundy may have been saying in the past, that the ABC, SBS and cultural institutions such as the National Library and the National Museum of Australia can continue to operate as they always have. Further, any government support for the cultural sector, such as grants and subsidies, is untouched by the agreement. This applies to federal, state and local level support. It also includes, let me stress, government support through the taxation system. There is nothing in the agreement that prevents the government from introducing new tax incentives or grants programs in the future.

Let me now turn more specifically to film, broadcasting and audiovisual media. There has been no effect on the government's ability to maintain the Australian Film Commission, to provide support to the local film industry; or the Film Finance Corporation, to invest in films made for and by Australians—quite contrary to the impression that is being created. Tax incentives that encourage local film production have been preserved. The agreement is quite clear that funding from bodies like the Film Finance Corporation can continue to be restricted to Australians and does not have to be extended to US interests.

There are a number of other issues that I would like to raise here today in the brief time available. I will now turn to the area of subscription TV. I make the point again that we negotiated an outcome that retains Australia's ability to adjust our local content requirements on subscription TV to respond to future market developments. In particular, we retain the scope to double the existing 10 per cent expenditure requirement for drama channels on subscription television. The free trade agreement provides us with sufficient scope to further increase that 10 per cent expenditure requirement if we decide that is required.

We have also allowed for the option to impose further expenditure requirements of up to 10 per cent on four additional program formats on subscription TV: arts, children's programming, documentaries and educational programming. This was another area where we considered it important to build in additional flexibility to respond to possible developments in the subscription TV area. The agreement explicitly allows for maintaining local content requirements in key program formats.

I would like now to address the issue of new media. Clearly, with the continuing advances in technology, the government needs to ensure that it will maintain the capacity to take action as new services are developed. This has been achieved by the agreement. The relevant term used in the agreement is `interactive audio and/or video services'. I have read in the newspapers of concerns that some believe this term is too broad. However, that is exactly the approach we decided to take. No-one can predict developments in this area. The term is a general concept and avoids constraining the capacity of governments in the future. In this way, the agreement will be able to apply to new types of interactive platforms that are yet to emerge.

There is another point that has caused misunderstanding, fuelled by misinformation coming from the Labor Party. There continue to be erroneous claims that the US government will have a veto on future government regulation. This is incorrect. While decisions about new measures must be made through a transparent process, I say again that there is no veto power for the US.

I believe I have made the case that the government has kept its commitment to the cultural sector—indeed, to the Australian people. Australians will continue to see and hear their voices and view their stories on television and on cinema screens. The Australian audiovisual market is already a very open one. I believe Australians will benefit profoundly from the free trade agreement. That is why this government is supporting it. I believe it is strongly in the national interest of this country.

I would also like to put on the record that Senator Cook, who chaired the inquiry into the free trade agreement, is not with us and is not well. Senator Cook and I, as many in this chamber will know, have had many robust debates—some very robust, I might say. But we all wish Senator Cook well and we all hope that he has a speedy recovery. For the time being we will certainly miss his presence in the chamber.

I see that Senator Conroy has come into the chamber. I know Senator Conroy was having a press conference. He may have missed the tribute that I paid to him as one of the three roosters. I did say, Senator Conroy, that you are entitled to crow. This is a rooster that is entitled to crow because of the work that he has done. I make the point that I do not agree with many of the things that Senator Conroy said, but the fundamental bottom line that I do agree with is that Senator Conroy supports the free trade agreement. He supported it from day one. He did not need five months to make up his mind on this deal, despite some viewing for the public as he considered some issues. Senator Conroy has been a strong supporter of the free trade agreement. He has been able, with the assistance of some colleagues, to bring the Labor Party with him. We congratulate him on that. We just hope that Senator Carr will not stitch him up in Victoria as a result of this. Senator Conroy's preselection may be threatened.


Senator Conroy —Live in hope.


Senator KEMP —Senator Conroy, we would prefer to see you in the chamber, because as strange as this may seem—


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Marshall)—Senator Kemp, please direct your remarks through the chair.


Senator KEMP —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. As strange as this may seem, from time to time Senator Conroy makes a little bit of sense. That is a rare commodity on the Labor Party side, Mr Acting Deputy President Marshall. I know you are a strong supporter of the free trade agreement.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —You are not seeking—


Senator KEMP —I am sorry; I thought you were a strong supporter of the free trade agreement. This is a historic day. I believe the Labor Party decision, as announced today, shows that the government was on the right track—as we knew from day one. We congratulate Mark Vaile, the Prime Minister and those ministers who played a key role in bringing this important agreement forward. We now have access to the largest economy in the world, an economy that has shown astonishing growth capacities over the last decade. There are not only clearly direct benefits but also benefits that will flow from greater investment in this economy. There are benefits that will flow directly to sectors that are not immediately involved because it will create an even more prosperous Australian economy, an economy that is more dynamic and, as a result, an economy which is more prosperous.

All sectors will benefit from that, particularly the sector that I have a particular interest in, and that is the cultural sector. This is an important agreement for Australia. I believe that the cultural sector will benefit from this agreement. I believe that the misinformation that has been fed to this sector, particularly through the Labor Party spokesperson, Senator Lundy, has not only made it difficult for many people to understand precisely what this agreement delivers but also, I believe, damaged the Labor Party with the views she has put forward.

In conclusion, I am a strong supporter of the free trade agreement. This is indeed a historic day in this parliament. I reject the sorts of comments that Senator Ridgeway has made. I believe they are extreme. They are not based on fact, typically. They are designed to scare people where there is no basis for that. Australians can now look back on another major decision that this government has been involved in, a decision made in the national interest of Australia, a decision which will benefit Australians, industry, the agricultural sector and indeed all sectors of the Australian economy.