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Monday, 14 March 2005
Page: 31

Senator RIDGEWAY (2:36 PM) —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Trade, Senator Hill. Given that the government has decided yet again to enter into free trade agreement negotiations with one of our major trading partners without any public consultation or debate and given that the proposed FTA with China is likely to have a major impact on particularly sensitive Australian industry sectors such as the TCF sector, will the minister agree that it is essential that this parliament and the Australian people have the opportunity to review the potential costs and benefits before any of the negotiations commence? Will the minister give an undertaking to table the report from the feasibility study into the proposed FTA in the parliament before the end of this week?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —I will see if the Minister for Trade wishes to table anything, but basically the way in which the parliament does its business is in the hands of the parliament. In terms of the consideration of treaties there is now in place a standing system that has structured a committee with specific responsibilities to look at issues and to inform the parliament. The honourable senator will be aware that, in the setting up of this committee, there was considerable debate about the appropriate role of the parliament and the appropriate role of the executive. Consistent with the fundamental structure of the Westminster system, it was the view of the majority that the committee should not interfere in the executive function but that in terms of its legislative function it was entitled to ensure that it was well informed. The government obviously respects that decision by the parliament. Therefore, the legislature now has a greater role in treaty making than it has ever had before. Before the critical stages are reached by the executive—if it gets to that point—the parliament will be duly informed and have a chance to conduct an inquiry in relation to this proposed free trade agreement.

Senator RIDGEWAY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The minister would be aware that the parliament has pursued the issue of looking at broader assessments dealing with social and environmental outcomes as well as economic outcomes. Is the minister aware that in March 2003 the Prime Minister justified Australia’s participation in the war on Iraq by referring to ‘the systematic, widespread and extremely grave violations of human rights by the government of Iraq’? Given that the government of China has one of the world’s worst records on human rights, from executing its own citizens to the occupation of Tibet and so on, why is the government rewarding China with preferential access to our market? Why the apparent double standard? Isn’t it true that we will be giving China a price advantage in the Australian market while ignoring human rights abuses?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —It is drawing a long bow to compare the justification for military action in Iraq and the justification for considering a free trade agreement with China. Leaving that aside, Australia is looking at this negotiation because the government believe that it is in Australia’s best interests. As we have said on many occasions, we think bilateral trade agreements that open up market opportunities are important for this country. We are a relatively small economy and we need to trade. The barriers to that trade in the past are better removed, if possible. That is the philosophical basis for entering into and achieving the free trade agreements that we have. The goal is to open markets and to give the Australian business community the opportunity to take advantage of that in order to continue to grow our economy and provide jobs and for all of the other benefits that can flow from that. (Time expired)