Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 23 August 2021
Page: 3


Senator ABETZ (Tasmania) (10:11): [by video link] Slave labour is a scourge which needs to be booted out. It is a cruelty inflicted by humans against humans in denial of human value and fundamental human rights. So I congratulate Senator Patrick on this initiative and fully understand that which motivates him in putting the Customs Amendment (Banning Goods Produced By Forced Labour) Bill 2021 before the Senate today. I also want to acknowledge the work of the secretariat and other committee members of the Senate's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee that looked at Senator Patrick's bill, crafted a report and made a list of some 14 recommendations.

For slavery to exist, there must be a procurer of the slaves and a market for them and their work. The genesis of this bill clearly is the disgust held at the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship's treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang province. One million of their own people are in concentration camps, slave labour camps. So this brutal dictatorship is the procurer of the slaves, and the market for their labour is both the dictatorship and many businesses which are able to supply on the world market at prices cheaper than competitors because of the slave labour savings. Senator Patrick has outlined a number of those businesses, so I won't go through that list again.

This is a real and present issue. It is difficult to believe that large businesses aren't aware of this scandalous supply chain. So often we hear from big business moralising on all manner of things, but they don't seem to have the capacity to do so when it hits their bottom line, their profit. Decency and a moral compass should dictate our corporate citizens in this country would not source product from such human-rights-denying hellholes, but seemingly some do.

To their credit, Wesfarmers have taken a positive, principled, proactive stance. I for one salute them for their position, which stands in contrast to the attitude of the Australia China Business Council, which during a hearing into another matter referred to, I believe quite dismissively, 'the colour and movement' in Xinjiang province. Indeed, in a hearing on 10 June this year, I put to the representative of the Australia China Business Council my concern at his use of the words 'colour and movement' in Xinjiang province. I asked:

Would you agree with me that the events occurring there are a little more serious than just colour and movement, when you've got one million people in concentration camps; and parliaments, like the Canadian parliament, determining that genocide, forced organ harvesting and slave labour are occurring? Would you agree with me that that terminology of 'colour and movement' doesn't really create the full picture of the atrocities that are going on?

Regrettably, we got this very weak answer:

I would agree that it was a poor choice of words, but neither would I necessarily choose the words that you've chosen to use; so I'll meet you somewhere in the middle.

Consider that for a moment: one million citizens in slave labour concentration camps, forced organ harvesting and the abuses go on, and the Australia China Business Council is unable to acknowledge that the word 'atrocity' should or could be used. Later on he sought to dismiss all these human rights abuses as simply reports, and he said that he wasn't going to use the words, because he didn't think it was constructive. Then, when talking about it, he said, 'We could have a very long and torturous discussion about this.' It really is a matter of regret that the former CEO of that same organisation described our great country as 'little Australia' and 'a shag on a rock' and diminished our country.

That said, this is a bill that is important. The government supports the intent of the legislation and acknowledges the importance of the issues. Just in case people are under any misapprehension, in Australia there is already the Modern Slavery Act 2018, of relative recent origin. This act drives business due diligence around supply chains. The government recently also committed $10.6 million to implement Australia's National Action Plan to Combat Modern Slavery 2020-25, which delivers initiatives to prevent, disrupt, investigate and prosecute modern slavery crimes. As Senator Patrick indicated, originally his bill was only in relation to the Uighurs. On the strength of our report, he accepts that it should have broad application, and that is what the government has sought. I commend Senator Patrick for that amendment to his bill.

The government has sought on numerous occasions to assist in the disruption of these supply chains, but it is considerably difficult for government and sometimes businesses, especially small businesses, to fully understand the degree of their supply chain and from where product is originally sourced. But can I say to the state governments in Australia that are seeking to source trains from Xinjiang province: you can be in no doubt as to what is occurring in Xinjiang province. The fact that you are pursuing and continuing to pursue contracts for the supply of trains and carriages from Xinjiang province, when you know what is going on, is a matter of, I believe, national scandal and national disgrace which brings a lot of disrepute on you and your state governments. You should be desisting from assisting the supply chains and assisting the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship in circumstances where the depravity of the treatment of these poor individuals who are making these trains is now so well known.

In the committee's report to the Senate, 14 recommendations were made. Time does not permit me to go through all of them. I will simply say that any legislation of this nature should have broad application, such as the Magnitsky legislation—another committee on which I sit has brought before the parliament a report suggesting that we should have Magnitsky type legislation—whose origin was in fact the Russian oligarchs and their corruption. But it doesn't only apply to Russia and its oligarchs; it should apply across the board, across the world. Similarly, slave labour legislation should apply across the board to any potential supply chain of this nature. That the government takes this seriously cannot be in any doubt.

This is a bill worthy of consideration and support, in principle. Until such time as a detailed examination of its various clauses has been undertaken and we have the whole-of-government response to the Senate committee's report, I believe it is premature to deal with this bill on a vote. Senator Patrick himself acknowledged that this was a 'blunt instrument'. I don't seek to misquote him on that. I understand the reason and rationale for his use of those words. But when dealing with a blunt instrument to deal with a horrendous issue—and with that I'm on all fours with Senator Patrick—there needs to be a deep analysis of every single clause to ensure that there are not any unforeseen consequences or circumstances.

I say to Senator Patrick and to the Senate that, if this bill were to go to a vote, my heart would say yes but my head would be saying 'not yet'. Good intentions are always to be applauded, and Senator Patrick should be fully applauded for what he is seeking to do with this bill. But life has also taught me that, too often, on examination, good intentions are exposed as sometimes naive and sometimes counterproductive. I believe that, in this case, there is no naivety in that which is being sought and pursued but there is the possibility of unforeseen consequences or counterproductive outcomes which would not suit the purposes of the originator of this bill.

Senator Patrick, congratulations on bringing this issue forward, but I would suggest to the Senate that we wait until we get the full government response and the analysis of the bill in some detail from the department so that we can move forward in a coherent manner to ensure that the human rights abuses that are occurring 24/7 in Xinjiang province are not simply discussed as colour and movement, as was so appallingly done by the Australia China Business Council, but that the matter is taken seriously, that we deal with the issues and that we ensure that we can wipe out this horrid trade in human misery.

As I said, my heart says 'yes' to this bill but my head says 'not yet'. I trust that the Senate will defer a vote on this bill, and consideration will be deferred until all the evidence is together so we have the best possible product to protect the peoples of the world who are subjected to slave labour. I thank the Senate.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Thank you, Senator Abetz. Before I call Senator Watt, I want to note that Australia is experiencing very difficult times, but it is very pleasing to see women leading our Senate chamber this week. Senator Watt.