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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 10405

Senator MILNE (TasmaniaLeader of the Australian Greens) (22:47): I rise to make some comments on the Malaysia-Australia free trade agreement. The Greens have had a longstanding position that free trade agreements are not what they are cracked up to be. We think that there ought to be level playing fields and that free trade agreements do not deliver level playing fields.

The reason for that is that they might be free trade agreements but they are frequently not fair trade agreements and I have argued that, no matter how efficient an Australian farmer is, they cannot compete against farmers in other economies if farmers in other economies do not have to bear the cost of compliance with environmental laws and standards or compliance with labour standards; and that we cannot have free trade agreements in the future unless they take those things into account; otherwise, we are going to have the situation we now have where we sign up to these free trade agreements. There is no assessment—no real assessment—of the impact on Australian producers and Australian manufacturers in relation to what then comes back as cheap imports from overseas that have not had those two issues that I mentioned.

Our farmers have to comply with the law. We want farming to be sustainable. We want it to be ethical, and there are costs associated with producing food in that way. If you add to that the costs associated with paying people appropriately and the standard with which they are treated in terms of the labour force, you cannot exploit workers in Australia and be legally able to do so under the law; however both those things—

Senator Xenophon: And illegal logging.

Senator MILNE: Illegal logging, of course—not to mention that. There are many ways of looking at this, and the Greens have argued many times that free trade agreements are overblown in their claims of the benefits to Australian agriculture in particular. The National Farmers' Federation always comes out, without exception, saying what marvellous things free trade agreements are, and then afterwards nobody does the analysis to see whether the claims that were made are anywhere near the truth. That is why I was very pleased when the Productivity Commission did their assessment of the free trade agreements, in particular the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement. I will never forget the minister of the day, Mark Vaile, standing up there saying that there would be 300,000 jobs coming out to Australia as a result of the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement. What a joke! What a disaster that free trade agreement has been! None of the benefits that were claimed for rural Australia came to pass.

In fact, now we have the Americans coming back under the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement trying to get what they did not get under the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement, particularly when it comes to pharmaceuticals and things like local media content. And we know that Monsanto is coming via the Trans-Pacific free trade agreement because they want to get rid of any blockage to GMOs—genetically modified organisms. Let's not kid ourselves with all this talk that comes out of the departments about the marvellousness of free trade agreements; they turn out to actually be about strategic and diplomatic reasons. I would argue the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement is not about trade but about the United States's intention to come back into the Pacific to build up a bloc that excludes China and to actually engage in the strategic policy of the region much more so than it is anything to do with free trade or any trade outcomes. The Greens have strongly argued that before we get into these free trade agreements there needs to be a commitment to have in them chapters and rules pertaining to labour standards and environmental compliance and that before negotiations go into play on free trade agreements the government should be expected to come and place in the parliament a document which shows some sort of strategic analysis of why or whether the parliament would agree that these free trade agreements should then go on to be negotiated.

I am very pleased to say that in discussions with Minister Emerson he has agreed that this free trade agreement—if we put it through here this evening—will be the last because of an absence of any documents coming before the parliament before free trade agreements are negotiated. The minister has agreed as a result of negotiation with the Greens that prior to commencing negotiations for a new agreement the government will table in parliament a document setting out its priorities and objectives including the anticipated costs and benefits of the agreement. This is a recommendation that was made by the JSCOT committee, and it has come out of the Productivity Commission assessment of free trade agreements; it was not on the table to be implemented, but I am glad to say that the Greens negotiating with the minister has led to his agreement. I am very pleased because this actually advances public policy in Australia, because from now on governments are going to have to table that document and set out for the parliament the priorities and objectives, including the costs and benefits. This will be incredibly important with the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, because, as I indicated, I cannot see the benefit to Australia one which way at all, and I think it has got far more to do with Australia's decision to facilitate the United States back into the region. The United States dropped the ball in the Asia-Pacific region in the last decade; President Obama has recognised that it has got a problem, and the US is trying to move straight back into the region, which is why the Labor government has facilitated a base out of Darwin, is trying to facilitate access to the Indian Ocean and the like. So that is a real issue for the Greens, and I think the Trans-Pacific Partnership is part of that strategic engagement and more about trying to include Japan and exclude China—however, we will get to that. At some point we will get this document on the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, and farmers, for the first time, will get a real insight into what claims are being made as to what will benefit them in terms of trade.

I accept that Western Australian dairy farmers have been waiting for the Malaysia free trade agreement to go through because of the benefits that they will have in getting rid of those tariffs. They are trying to build a fresh milk market into Asia and in particular into Malaysia. This would not have gone through tonight if we had not engaged in that negotiation with the minister. The Greens do not support this free trade agreement in the context that it does not have environmental compliance or labour standards provisions. We are prepared to facilitate it being debated in the parliament because we are aware that the majority of people here do support it and that, if it did not come into effect on 1 January, it would be delayed until we came back in February. There are certain sectors of the community who are wanting to take advantage of it in the short term.

It would have been far better if we had had the engagement with labour standards and environmental compliance costs. Frankly, I cannot see how we are going to keep Australian farmers on the land if we continue to facilitate cheap imports to compete against them without engaging in the negotiations to make sure that the costs faced by Australia farmers and not farmers elsewhere are taken into account to achieve a level playing field. That is where we are coming from on this. I welcome the negotiations with the minister and I am glad that from now on we can get this document into the parliament for discussions before free trade agreements are negotiated. It is another example of what can happen when parties decide to sit down together and work out ways to not only facilitate the business of the Senate but also get better outcomes for the parliament and the people of Australia because that is what we are here to do.