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Thursday, 27 November 2014
Page: 9487

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (11:27): First of all, I congratulate Senator Madigan on raising this issue which deals with fair trade and Australian standards. It is an important discussion. It is particularly important to the part of the world that I come from. In fact, I have just had to leave a meeting in my office with my Queensland LNP Senate colleagues—Senator O'Sullivan unfortunately had to leave a little earlier—and the mayors of five of the shires in the Townsville region who are all very keen to promote their parts of North Queensland for trade and investment with the booming Asian economies. I thank Mr Ewen Jones, the hardworking and ever active member for Herbert, based in Townsville. I was pleased to welcome to my office Mayor Jenny Hill, from the Townsville City Council; Councillor Frank Beveridge, the mayor of the Charters Towers Regional Council; Mr Rodger Bow, the chair of the Hinchinbrook Shire Council; Mr Alf Lacey, from the Palm Island Council; and my own mayor, Councillor Bill Lowis, from the Burdekin Shire. Those five shires are banding together. They have come to the national capital this week at the invitation of Mr Jones to make sure that their message is heard in relation to trade considerations with Asia. They have been ably supported by both Townsville Enterprise Limited and the Townsville Chamber of Commerce who have a very clear focus on trade between this part of Northern Australia, Asia and the Pacific. Trade is always something that is very much front-of-mind for those of us who live in Northern Australia. For that reason I am delighted to participate in this debate that has been initiated, as I understand, by Senator Madigan.

I regret to say that, whilst I understand the sentiments of the bill that Senator Madigan has proposed, there are some issues with the bill that perhaps could be unintentionally counter-productive. Just by way of background, I indicate that Australia always retains the right, both under its World Trade Organization commitments and its free trade agreements, to regulate goods sold in Australia and to prevent the import of goods that do not meet Australia's mandatory standards, and that is very important. It is a principle that has been in Australia's trade relationships for a long time. Australia's import requirements for goods are established by taking into account the framework of rules established by the WTO. Australia benefits very substantially from those rules because, without them, Australian exports could be vulnerable to political and protectionist pressures in other countries. That is always a problem with trade negotiations, generally.

I suspect there would not be many senators in this place who have not, at some time in their lives, been approached by a constituent who said something like, 'Look, why don't we stop the Philippines importing bananas into Australia? Why don't we stop Asian countries importing motor vehicles into Australia so Australian industries can have a free go?' That is okay, and in the old days that was the way things were. What we have to understand is that, if we want the Philippines to buy our goods and services and if we want the Asian manufacturing countries to buy our technology, our services and our agricultural products, then we have to make sure that we have the freest possible trade between the countries. If we start putting up trade barriers, then you can be assured that other countries will retaliate, and you would not expect otherwise.

Particularly for our primary producers, it is essential that we have the freest possible trade. Australia produces much more in the way of food and general agricultural produce than we can possibly consume. So, Australian industries—two that I am very familiar with in the north are the sugar industry and the beef industry—can only exist because countries buy the products we sell that are surplus to our own needs. I might say that in both those instances the surplus is far more than what we consume nationally. So, the freest possible trade is essential. When you do things that interfere with that trade, like the absolutely, ludicrous, ridiculous and unintelligible ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia, you get retaliation, and that is what we do not want in our trading arrangements.

In looking at Senator Madigan's bill a couple of the things that spring to mind lead me, in this instance, not to support this bill. The bill, as I read it, would make free trade negotiations, which are crucial to Australia,—particularly to our agricultural and horticultural industries—much more difficult to negotiate. The bill suggests that Australia would be required to give a less favourable treatment to goods imported from free trade partners than treatment given to goods from other countries. Free trade agreements are, of course, all about making trade easier and more efficient.

This bill would require that Australia not consider applications for Australia to accept conformity assessment procedures in other countries as being equivalent to those in Australia. Similarly, as I understand this bill, it would require Australia not to consider applications for Australia to accept that another country's requirements are equivalent to Australia's in terms of policy objectives being pursued, even if the detail of those requirements is not the same. This bill would require Australia to adopt import requirements that have an effect of creating unnecessary and therefore unfortunate obstacles to trade. Also the bill, as it is drafted, would place a legal burden on a foreign exporter in their own jurisdiction, in contrast to the current process which places the onus on the importer operating with Australia.

If these measures were introduced, you could expect some retaliation. As I said, the most recent example that comes to mind is the Indonesian—understandable—reaction when, overnight, we cut off a food supply which provided about one-third of the protein supplements for that populous nation to our north.

We have to be very careful in all trading arrangements to make sure that we do not invite retaliatory measures, because Australia as a nation—no matter how good we are, how rich we are or how many natural resources we have—cannot exist as a nation without the freest possible free and open trade. I mention that in the North, and in the recent free trade agreements with Japan, Korea and China, the sugar industry do feel as if they have been singled out for bad treatment because unfortunately sugar has not done very well in any of them. But there is a reason for that. With the most recent agreement we understand that there is a significant sugar industry in China, and the Chinese were going to have a particular local political problem if cheaper better Australian sugar was going to enter the Chinese market. We had to recognise the Chinese difficulties in the negotiations, as they recognised some of the issues that we had with the state development regulations—which we would like to have seen more explicitly mentioned.

Sugar is a very important export commodity from Australia. Most of the Australian sugar crop is exported. I am hopeful that the fantastic negotiations by Mr Robb will mean that sugar will again be considered in the review in three or four years' time, which has been negotiated as part of the overall China free trade agreement, as I understand it. There I hope sugar may be a bit better dealt with. We do already export quite a lot of sugar to China, but there is room for improvement in that. But most essentially, in any negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement sugar must be included in a way that benefits Australia. The sugar industry—and, indeed, many of my colleagues and myself—will draw a line in the sand if sugar is ignored in any future Trans-Pacific Partnership arrangements. I digress slightly from the bill, but I wanted to indicate just how important it is, and how delicate negotiations are, for free trade agreements.

I mention again the high-powered delegation of mayors from five of the more prominent local authorities in Australia who are in Canberra making their views known and working very hard to advance the economic base of their own communities—which flows on to the economic base for Australia. They are determined to make sure that their shires and, indeed, to ensure that the whole of Northern Australia is seen as a liveable place and a good place to be with all the necessary social services. There are a number of ways that this can be done. The Australian government, of course, has to do its bit to help. I know our tourist traffic with Asia could increase substantially if we had a little bit more access from Northern Australia into the burgeoning Asian economies, those with increasingly large numbers of middle-class Asians who are looking for holiday experiences elsewhere. Already in the North we have good international airports in Darwin and in Cairns, and we continue to promote those places as destinations.

There is a group called AirAsia who would like to establish a new direct international link from Townsville—clearly numerically the biggest city in Northern Australia—direct to Denpasar in Bali and from Denpasar out of the AirAsia hub to the rest of the world. I understand that the fares that are being talked about are so attractive that even someone of my limited means would be able to fly from Townsville direct to Bali and then on to Asia if the air link were able to be established. I know that Townsville airport is limited but those who run the airport there are very keen. They have set everything up, they have made concessions and they are well advanced in opening this new international link. Unfortunately, the difficulty is the cost of getting Australian Custom' support for an airport that does not have a permanent Customs presence at the airport. Customs do have a permanent presence at the Port of Townsville, the seaport, and I hear—and I will explore this later in estimates this afternoon—that there is some diminution in the numbers of Customs staff at the Townsville port. I want to explore, as Mr Ewen Jones has suggested to me, why those Customs people could not be moved from the Townsville port to the Townsville airport to deal with this new proposed direct international flight from Townsville to Denpasar. Those are the things that have to be looked at and have to be considered as Australia pursues its trade and investment options.

I know there are other people who want to speak on this bill so I will not continue. Again, I thank Senator Madigan for raising the issue. I understand the sentiments behind the bill. There are some elements of the bill, some principles of the bill, that I do support, but I think because of the concerns that I understand might follow from the implementation of this bill, I would, at this stage, be against the adoption of this particular measure.