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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 26115


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) (11:46 AM) —The government are particularly concerned about rural and regional Australia. It is one of our high priority areas, as Senator Ridgeway would be aware. We do have a genuine interest in that. It is an interest re-enforced by the fact that most of the representatives in this parliament from rural and regional Australia are from the Liberal Party or the National Party. We are very aware of the needs of rural and regional Australia. Senator Ridgeway will be aware that something relating to the free trade agreement that personally disappointed me was that sugar was not able to be included—but then I do not think anyone ever seriously considered that it could be. But we have helped out the sugar industry with a support package.

More importantly—and this is of particular relevance to this debate—we have continued to pursue the international rules under the World Trade Organisation. The result of that has been that we got some pretty good news last week. Admittedly it was only an interim ruling, but it was a ruling that does seem to give a glimmer of hope to our sugar industry and to the sugar industries of all the developing nations around the world that the WTO might at last be moving on the huge subsidies, which I think I probably have to say are alleged to be said to be paid by the European Union to their sugar producers.

This is a small first step. It shows the value of involvement in international trade issues. It is something that I know Senator Harris has a view on, which is not a view that I agree with. This does prove that these international rules and the WTO do actually work. I look forward to the day when trade in sugar is free and fair. It is a long way off, but we have made a start on it. I think that ruling—interim and subject to appeal though it is, and despite the fact that it is against some fairly entrenched interests—is a start. It proves the necessity of continuing with these sorts of deals.

Senator Ridgeway particularly mentioned the impact on rural and regional Australia and whether adjustment will be necessary. Rural and regional Australia is going to be one of the big beneficiaries of this agreement. That is because rural and regional Australia depends to a large degree on the primary sector for its very existence. The primary sector are the big beneficiaries. There are many big beneficiaries. I am very familiar with and involved in this. I live in an area, and visit other areas, where this is so important. The big winners will be rural and regional Australia. I am not sure whether the CIE report focused on this, but let me give you my prediction. Knowing rural and regional Australia, I think that there will be greater security, greater job availability, more progress and more prosperity in country towns as a result of the free trade agreement.

Structural adjustment may be needed in some areas, as I have mentioned before. Structural adjustment these days is a fact of life. Look at the structural adjustments that we have had to make in the Great Barrier Reef, with the fishermen who have been doing it tough since the green zones came in. Green zones were good for the nation, as is the free trade agreement. The green zones have impacted upon some people, so the government have brought in a very generous structural adjustment package to help out. That is what we do. It is a fact of life in a modern, dynamic economy. Responsible governments do take appropriate action when and if those adjustments do require specific intervention.

Senator Ridgeway mentioned the textiles, clothing and footwear industries. The government are not constrained in its ability to provide industry assistance to the textile, clothing and footwear sector so long as any scheme or form of assistance is consistent with our international treaty obligations under the WTO. Anything we do in Australia, be it for the sugar industry, which I have just mentioned, or any other industry we have assisted, is done bearing in mind and remaining very consistent with our international treaty obligations. We are great believers in the WTO. As Senator Ridgeway knows, seven out of 10 of our farmers across Australia only exist because we can trade. We only need 30 per cent of our farmers to feed and clothe Australia. The rest will only exist if we can trade. That is why trading arrangements, World Trade Organisation regimes and the US free trade agreement, as well as the agreements with Singapore, Thailand and others that we are looking at, are so important to Australia—because Australia needs trade to continue to survive.

This is not a fact that is often emphasised but it should be emphasised more. Australia stands to benefit more out of a freer trading regime than most other developed nations in the world. As I say, we are not constrained by our ability to provide assistance where it is needed and we have demonstrated this as a government. I have to say, although the previous government were not terribly good in government and there were a lot of adjustments needed because they ran the economy so terribly that businesses and industries fell over right, left and centre, even they understood that, at times, a structural adjustment package was needed. As I say, it is not new to Australia; it is something that is fairly commonplace in a modern, dynamic economy.