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Monday, 22 September 2008
Page: 8096

Mr IAN MACFARLANE (4:24 PM) —It is with some sadness that I rise in the House today to give a response to I do not know how many lots of big words and long statements that achieve nothing that have come from the Minister for Trade, who sits opposite.

Mr Fitzgibbon —It’s not even your portfolio.

Mr IAN MACFARLANE —This portfolio is going to be taken over by the member for Wide Bay, and I am sure that he will be more than a match for those who sit opposite.

Mr Fitzgibbon —Where is he?

Mr Crean —No appearance, Your Worship?

Mr IAN MACFARLANE —Mr Deputy Speaker, there is a tradition in this House that, when someone takes leave for a medical reason, it is not raised. But we have already realised from the minister that he does not want to behave in a bipartisan way. I have asked repeatedly for briefings from his office and never had them. I have asked how I can make statements in relation to Australia’s trade policy when I am overseas and I have never received a response. I take a bipartisan approach to trade. I have written to the minister on a number of occasions—and all of those letters have been on file—and have never been responded to. So I take some exception to the interjection.

Mr Crean interjecting

Mr IAN MACFARLANE —I accept the apology. The Minister for Trade, whenever he stands at this dispatch box, always talks about doing more and doing something and all of that. Well, the time for talking about doing more is over.

Whilst it is a little difficult to comment on a report that has only just been presented—a report that has been long-awaited by those on this side of the House—we do welcome the tabling of the Mortimer report. I assure the minister that I will take the time to read it, as my passion for trade—which goes back to my days in agriculture when he and I first crossed tracks and had a far more bipartisan approach to achieving things than we do now—that I have held for 30 years will continue.

The report may bring some clarity and direction to what has been a haphazard and chaotic approach by this minister, including the direction he has taken on everything from the EMDG Scheme to trade policy in general. I hope that this report may prompt the minister to stop floundering and actually accept the fact that he has a responsibility, because he is in government, he is on the Treasury benches, and he is in a position to do something about it. It may be in vain, but I hope this report might also spark the minister into actually considering the interests of exporters and investors—so far, the missing link in Labor’s trade policy. I can only wonder what sort of reception they might get in light of the fact that, when it comes to trade policy, the minister has adopted such a closed door approach to those who wish to work with him, including those on this side of the chamber who have looked for a bipartisan approach.

The minister did discuss the EMDG aspect of the report. That is certainly one of the most important aspects of trade policy, and it was one of the most important pieces of support infrastructure for exporters under the previous coalition government. Clearly, after 10 months in office, with no trade policy action, the minister figured, ‘What difference will a few more weeks take?’ I hope that, having released the report—after having sat on it for three weeks—he does not take weeks or months to define his response. The drip-feed approach that we have seen from the Labor Party has been to the detriment of Australia’s trade sector. On top of the DNA that exists within the Labor Party to govern by committee after committee, the core DNA of the trade minister has been a haphazard drip-feed approach to trade policy.

The government’s record so far on the EMDG Scheme has been nothing short of dismal. No amount of self-righteous carry-on from the minister will dispel the fact that it has been a woeful performance. Labor acknowledged the popularity of the EMDG Scheme when the coalition were in government. Despite the promises it has made and despite all the musing and illusion that it attempted to create—that it would fund extra money into the EMDG Scheme when it came into government—it has refused to allocate funding to a sufficient level in 2007-08, 2008-09, the current year, 2010-11 and 2011-12. This policy paralysis has left Australian exporters, who went about their business in good faith, tens of thousands of dollars short.

We have already seen the first payment in the current payment year, under this government’s budget, cut from $70,000 to $40,000. And the trade minister knew from the time he came into government that that was going to be the case. He knew that there were going to be shortfalls in the EMDG scheme and he did nothing about it. If he did do something about it, it certainly cannot be seen. So, either he did nothing or—as we suspect—he went to the ERC, the expenditure review committee, and got comprehensively rolled. He got no money for this year, $50 million for next year, nothing for the year after and nothing for the year after that.

I note that in the minister’s statement he said that they were making a down payment for exporters in the EMDG scheme. I hope that means that in the time ahead he will be able to change those forward estimates. It will be too late for this year. He could go into cabinet, as previous ministers on this side have done, and argue for extra money, but I assume he will not. But he may have the courage to argue to change the out years. I hope he does, because people involved in trade and exports in Australia need a minister who can get results out of the ERC. They need a minister who does not pass the buck, who accepts that he is in government, who understands that it is his job to do something and who, instead of being more interested in ‘blamestorming’, actually gets in there and does some brainstorming about how to get the money for the exporters.

The Rudd Labor government has played a cruel hoax on Australia’s exporters by claiming to extend the EMDG scheme, broadening the parameters and making the scheme wider, while at the same time not addressing the shortfalls in three of the four forward years. Their one-off allocation of $50 million in grants in 2009-10, which will relate to expenses incurred in the current financial year, is leaving exporters out in the cold. Of greater concern is Labor’s attempted deception of exporters by failing to allocate extra money for the scheme after its initial $50 million in next year’s funding budget.

I hope the minister succeeds on this front but I can assure him that we will be holding his feet to the fire on it. He needs to stiffen up a little bit. He needs the parliamentary secretary to stay in Australia a little bit more. I am very pleased to see the parliamentary secretary here this week. I do not think that was planned, but it is good to see him here, because the Minister for Trade needs all the help he can get. This minister and his parliamentary secretary need to stop throwing the blame back on the previous government, because this minister has responsibility. He has to actually start doing things.

The damage Labor has done to the trade sector extends further than just the EMDG scheme. The minister had the audacity to stand at the dispatch box and talk about how he had improved the operations of Invest Australia by moving it into Austrade. That move in itself may or may not be a positive. I can see some positives in it. But the 100 people who lost their jobs in that transition would be wondering how you will do with 50 people a job that used to take 150 people. How will you do it when you have sacked two-thirds of your departmental staff?

In terms of the Global Opportunities Program that the previous government set up, they have moved that across to the trade portfolio. That, again, may be a good move, except that they ditched a couple of hundred million dollars in the process—ripped it out of that program to promote exports overseas and left that section, I understand, with less than $10 million. We have also heard from the minister about the amazing achievements in bilateral trade negotiations. I assume he includes in that statement the China and Japan free trade agreements—we know the budgets for the negotiations for those were cut in the budget.

One of the great distortions that we get from a Labor Party government is their attempt to rewrite history. They pay no credit, unlike this coalition when we were in government. We gave them credit for the work they did on the New Zealand agreement. We acknowledged that work. Then we set about beginning the processes on things like the Chile FTA. But they have given no acknowledgement of the work that was done on Chile by the previous government. This minister takes a myopic approach, with no bipartisanship, no grace and no diplomacy in what he does. I say to him: change your ways. If you attempt to rewrite history then history is going to catch you out. What we want to see is some real action; we do not want to see this continuous talk about what they are going to do.

Every time the Minister for Trade stands at the dispatch box, he talks about previous trade deficits, and in doing so exposes just how little they on that side understand about how an economy works. Of course, he is also trying to gloss over the cracks; he is trying to gloss over the fact that, when Labor left government, they left a $96 billion deficit. They left us with an unemployment problem that had to be resolved. They also left a legacy of businesses broken by the high interest rates that existed during their government.

What the previous government had to do was restore the economic confidence of businesses to invest, to employ, to spend money, to rebuild the economy and to put in place the factories, the processes and the innovation. We had to make the decisions that would see Australia grow strong in the long term. In doing that, we saw business investment reach record levels in areas such as R&D for processing. We saw exports of processed goods in Australia reach record levels. That takes time, and it takes a lot of investment. It means you have to update your machinery. You have to retrain your personnel to do their jobs better so that everyone shares in the prosperity. You have to make the investment in innovation.

The Minister for Trade—who is no longer in the House; perhaps he is off on a flight somewhere; who knows?—fails to acknowledge that that was a time of economic rebuilding after the shattering days of the previous Labor government. As a farmer, I faced—and I am sure other farmers here such as the member for Gray also faced—interest rates in excess of 21 per cent. From those shattering days, when small businesses were destroyed by interest rates and inflation, we had to rebuild the economic climate to ensure that investment could be made.

The minister also talked about ASEAN. We certainly support the push for an ASEAN free trade agreement. We certainly support the efforts of the minister, even though we know not what they are. The minister will not give me a briefing on what he has done, and I suspect he will not give the new shadow minister a briefing either. We support whatever the minister has done to improve the trade relationship between Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN. It is a crucial part of our trade strategy going forward; it is no more and no less crucial than Doha. It is a partnership. You have to do both. You have to cover your bets at Doha by pushing forward with FTAs.

However, I have one of those uneasy feelings that you get when you have been a farmer and you are about to get a storm: you can see the storm clouds building on the horizon but the storm is full of hail not rain. I want to know what is in that ASEAN agreement before it is signed and finally ratified. Industry in Australia wants to know what is in that free trade agreement. When we were in government, we were given assurances that certain things would happen with access to markets after the Thai FTA. That did not eventuate, even though tariff reform did. The actuals behind the border reforms have not occurred. There are reasons for that, but we cannot go forward with an ASEAN free trade agreement and expose industries such as the car industry to the result of our failure to get the governments of countries that we are going negotiate with to hold to their commitments of giving us access.

In this instance, we need to look at how we will get motor vehicles into the ASEAN area. We need to look at how we will export Ford Territories out of Victoria into countries like Thailand and large six-cylinder vehicles, which are among the best in the world in their class, into some of the export markets. Australians continue to make the choice of vehicles that come out of Thailand, for instance. It is worth noting that Thai imports into Australia have doubled in dollar terms in the last two years. It is also worth noting that we need to ensure that whatever is in the Australian, New Zealand ASEAN free trade agreement gives us the access that we need. That will be a challenge. Were we in government, I accept that that would be a challenge. But it is a challenge that has to be met. The car industry in Australia is facing a crisis. I have not yet seen the figures that would have been released today, but I assume they will show that the downward trend continues in the larger vehicle segment of vehicles made in Australia.

We need to give that industry some confidence. When I was the minister for industry, I worked very hard on the car industry to begin exports and to grow their exports. So we have a situation now where, out of the vehicles Toyota make here, more vehicles are exported than sold here. Holden is heading towards the 50 per cent mark. We have to get trade markets for Ford. We have to be able to see those vehicles exported, and that will come through things such as the ASEAN FTA. But we need to know what is in there.

I look forward to seeing what is in the agreement. I know the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade looks forward to seeing what is in it. I know that JSCOT also looks forward to seeing what is in it. But, most importantly, industry in Australia looks forward to seeing what is in it. So, I beseech the minister to take a bipartisan approach and to take the member for Wide Bay into his confidence. Only he needs to know what is in the agreement for now. This would give us some confidence that the minister knows what he is doing in regard to the future of Australian industry. After a series of speeches in this House, we have seen absolutely nothing to date but talk. We need to see some action.

In conclusion, I also thank Mr David Mortimer and Dr John Edwards for their work. I will, as I said, take the opportunity to look at their report. I am sure based on just the credentials of those two gentlemen that it will be a fine report. It will identify opportunities for Australian exporters. It will identify opportunities for the government to put in place policies that give exporters the confidence they need—and they will need that confidence. But it would also give the government confidence that they have put money into those programs that they have not put money into to date. Instead of cutting negotiating budgets, they should be adding to them. Instead of cutting programs that were put in place by the previous government, they should be making sure that those programs run. They were in the forward estimates. They have been taken out of the forward estimates to fund programs that the Labor Party thought were more important. What is more important than trade? Very little.

In his absence, I thank the minister for the opportunity to respond to his ministerial statement. I hope that the efforts of Mr Mortimer and Dr Edwards are not wasted and that this government actually takes a swift and firm response to the report and gives the confidence to exporters that they need.