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Thursday, 26 June 2014
Page: 3993

Senator RUSTON (South Australia) (10:42): I too rise today to speak on the bill from Senators Xenophon and Madigan in relation to the National Flag Act 1953, requiring that Australian flags flown, used or supplied by the Commonwealth be manufactured in Australia from Australian materials. Like the two senators, I am a very proud Australian and I certainly believe that the responsibility of government is to support Australian businesses and manufacturers to ensure we have the best possible opportunity for the future of our country.

Before I go on to discussing the bill specifically, I will share some research I did before speaking this morning. I thought the best thing for me to do was to look at a little of the history of the Australian flag and, regretfully, I must admit that I was quite ignorant about its development. Apparently in 1900 the Melbourne Herald offered 25 pounds—which is about $3,000 in today's terms—for the design of a national flag for Australia. They stipulated that all entries had to include the Union Jack and the Southern Cross on the flags. At a similar time another publication, the Review of Reviews of Australasia, also held a competition that did not require inclusion of the Union Jack and Southern Cross—it was an open competition. Following Federation, the British government requested that the Australian government design a new flag, and so an official competition—separate from the other two—was held and received more than 32,000 entries. The really extraordinary thing was that, from all of the competitions, the five entries that were eventually selected were almost identical, with only very minor differences. The winners included, amongst others, a 14-year-old Melbourne schoolboy by the name of Ivor Evans, Lesley Hawkins, a teenage optician's apprentice from Sydney, and William Stevens, a ship's officer from New Zealand.

There was quite an interesting comment in The Bulletin at that the time. I hope the chamber will indulge me in relating their fairly strong words. About the winning flags, The Bulletin commented:

… no artistic value, no national significance … Australia is still Britain's little boy … that bastard flag is a true symbol of the bastard state of Australian opinion …

I thought that was quite extraordinary, given that it was published back at the turn of the 19th century—not the 20th, the 19th.

The design was basically seen as the Victorian flag with a star added. The New South Wales government immediately objected to that, of course. They said, 'We are not having a national flag that looks like the Victorian flag.' On 3 September 1901, however, the flag was unfurled for the first time at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne. That date, 3 September, is apparently now Australian National Flag Day, not that we necessarily celebrate it.

Senator Brandis: We do.

Senator RUSTON: Senator Brandis has just advised that we do celebrate it.

Senator Brandis: Mr Allan Pidgeon ensures that we do.

Senator RUSTON: Mr Allan Pidgeon, I am being advised, is responsible for it—so there you go.

King Edward VII approved a slightly altered design in 1903. This included the seven-pointed stars of the Southern Cross—except the smallest—and the six-pointed Commonwealth Star, also called the Federation Star. Soon after, in 1909, the Commonwealth Star was changed to a seven-pointed star to represent not only the six states but also the territories. That was a little bit of history about our flag which I thought was tremendously interesting.

Returning to the bill—I too believe that the Australian flag has tremendous significance and importance for Australia. As Senator Madigan points out, soldiers who lose their lives in battle representing this country are returned to Australia with their coffins draped in the Australian flag. We fly a huge Australian flag above this building to represent the significance and importance of this parliament, as do the parliaments of the states and territories around Australia. It is interesting to note that the designs of the state flags are all derived from the national flag, but the flags of the territories are not. They do not have the Union Jack on their flags.

One of the things that popped into my mind when I was looking at these issues relates to the fact that the Australian flag has the Union Jack. The Union Jack comprises the crosses of Scotland, Ireland and England. In September this year, a referendum on Scotland's independence is being held. Should the vote be in favour of independence, it will create an interesting issue for all the countries around the world that include the Union Jack on their flag. All of a sudden the Union Jack may lose the Cross of St Andrew, which is the white cross on the Union Jack. What will happen to the flags of the world should the referendum be successful? All the research suggests that there is every chance that the referendum will be successful.

Senator Cameron interjecting

Senator RUSTON: Senator Cameron is here. Perhaps he will wax lyrical some more about the Scottish referendum in a minute.

Returning to the issue of the purchase of Australian flags—I think everybody in this place would be delighted if it were possible for everything to be purchased within Australia. But the cold hard facts of the matter are that, whilst the Australian government has a level of discretion in its spending, the taxpayers of Australia elect governments, first and foremost, to spend taxpayers' money in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible—to obtain value for money for those taxpayers. In some instances, that will require procurement of items and goods that are not manufactured in Australia. Reducing the costs of doing business in Australia is one way of dealing with that, but we also need to be very careful that we do not provide artificial protection for Australian companies. We want them to become competitive in the international marketplace.

I am sure this has been said before this morning, but Australian suppliers are very well represented in Commonwealth procurement. My understanding is that, in the 2012-13 year, Australian suppliers were contracted to provide 82 per cent—by value—of the goods and services purchased by the Commonwealth. That equates to $32 billion of the overall $39.3 billion spent by government on procurement. So it is obvious that the Commonwealth government is a very big consumer of Australian manufactured goods.

We also need to remember that we operate in a global marketplace and that we are signatory to a number of international agreements with provisions relating to procurement. The international procurement framework under which the Australian government has agreed to operate has certain requirements relating to fairness of trade—in both directions. Failure on our part to meet these international obligations could entail significant risks for Australian exporters.

As you well know, Mr Acting Deputy President Sterle, from our work in the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee meetings, there is constantly debate on the issue of protection versus free trade. I know we discuss it, more often than not, from the biosecurity perspective. I think you and I are as one in that we believe that biosecurity should trump free trade every time. We can justify that on the basis that a biosecurity incursion would destroy the industry.

But the reality for Australian manufacturing, production, trade, primary producers and, as Senator Madigan points out, mining is that it is a two-way thing. If we start putting up barriers to trade for imported products into Australia, we can almost immediately expect that we will have retaliations from those countries to which we export. The wisest words I heard recently in relation to the free trade space is that Australia will not get rich selling to itself; Australia is only going to get rich by selling to the rest of the world.

We need to undertake this debate today in the context of what is in the holistic best interests of Australia. I do have a level sympathy for the argument put forward by my colleagues Senator Xenophon and Senator Madigan. We have a very emotional connection to our flag. But I think the most important thing that we can do for Australia and Australians is make sure we have a strong and vibrant economy. I fundamentally believe that the way we will have a strong and vibrant economy in Australia is by creating export opportunities.

The cold, hard reality is that, with the size of our country and the things that we do so well being agriculture, mining and advanced technologies, we can only survive in that space by exporting. Our population is way too small not to. Resources, particularly water, prevent us from having populations like that of the United States, Europe and Asia, and we do not want to end up with all the issues that come with expanded populations. We are by our very nature an exporting nation. All that putting up potential barriers that are not able to be justified by biosecurity would serve to do is put at risk the millions and billions of dollars that we receive from our trading partners.

I am not able to support the idea that we should be forcing people to buy Australian in the same way that I do not believe we should be artificially propping up industries in Australia, because propping them up does have the potential to weaken them. The fact that Australia's procurement framework is nondiscriminatory is well supported by the argument that as an exporting nation we have no choice whatsoever but to accept that the net result has to be what we are looking at, not necessarily picking off bits and pieces along the way because of emotional attachment.

Before I conclude, I would like to put on the record the fantastic opportunities that the new free trade agreements that have been signed with Japan and South Korea provide for Australia, particularly my home state and the home state of Senator Xenophon, South Australia. We are a state that have not been doing quite so well in recent times. I am not even sure that we are not below Tasmania on some of the economic indicators. We are doing it pretty tough at the moment in South Australia. We have an economy that has largely been dependent on agricultural exports and mining exports. These have not been faring so well, particularly because of the barriers to trade with certain trading nations. The opportunities are huge if we can get rid of these barriers.

I draw your attention to an example. The gross tariff for Australian wine into China at the moment is 43 per cent and yet one of our competitors coming out of South America, Chile, have already established a free trade agreement with China which means that they can send their wine in with no tariff whatsoever. The minute we put a pallet of wine on a ship to send to China we are already 43 per cent behind Chile, who have a number of advantages over Australia because their costs of production are very low in comparison to ours. But because we make great wine and are very efficient wine producers we remain an aspirational wine-producing country, particularly when it comes to exporting into Asia. If we could get rid of that 43 per cent barrier to our wine the opportunity for Australia and particularly for my home state of South Australia would be huge.

The agreements we have in place with Japan and South Korea have started. We are seeing a sliding scale of tariff reduction for our horticultural products into both of those markets. I also note, once again, that Japan is currently the largest export market for citrus from Australia. It has overtaken the USA as our biggest trading partner in the citrus space. But the opportunities for us to go into China are absolutely massive.

You will be well aware, Acting Deputy President Sterle, that one of the barriers that has prevented us from exporting into China is our fruit fly situation. Certainly investing in eradicating fruit fly in Australia would provide us with one of the most massive opportunities for our horticultural industry in China. I for one am certainly looking forward to seeing the progression of other trade arrangements around the world because I fear that, unless South Australia can get some increased market access into these countries, our economy will be in a very perilous state.

I say that in the context of the bill that has been put forward by Senators Xenophon and Madigan. I know that it is a very small component of trade arrangements for Australia to request that flags that are flown by the Commonwealth be supplied and manufactured in Australia. But I think we need to realise the bigger picture and the consequences if we ever had a situation, as small as it might be, with one of our big trading partners saying, 'Hang on a minute, we are not going to remove a trade restriction or barrier to Australia simply because you have done this.'

Wherever possible it would be fantastic to be able to purchase our Australian flags from Australian manufacturers, and I am sure many of us seek to do so. But if that one decision, or another decision of a similar size, prevented the furtherance of trade arrangements or gave one of our trading partners an excuse to actually apply some trade restrictions to Australia, that could have absolutely devastating effects for Australia. There is no doubt that I am absolute advocate for free trade, because I believe it is in the best interests of Australia.

I would respectfully suggest to those who are putting this forward that the best thing and most productive thing that we can do to look after the people who Senator Madigan was so passionately advocating on behalf of—those from Western Sydney, those working in Australian manufacturing—is to make sure that we have a robust economy that that is growing and prospering. Whilst I am sure others in the chamber will not necessarily agree with the way that this side of the chamber is proposing to achieve that robust economic growth and to look after our economy, I think we all have to agree that the best thing for Australia is an economy that is growing, so that we are a prosperous nation and that we maintain the economic powerhouse that this country can and should be into the future.