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Thursday, 13 September 2018
Page: 6286


Senator REYNOLDS (Western AustraliaAssistant Minister for Home Affairs) (10:12): I rise to speak on the Customs Amendment (Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus Implementation) Bill 2018 and the associated bill. I would note that the bill is, I think rather fittingly, the first bill I am taking through this chamber, and I'm very happy and proud that it is this particular bill.

First of all, I'd like to thank those opposite for their support for this very important bill. I think bipartisanship on this particular issue for our Pacific neighbours is particularly important. Before I go into the specifics of the bill, I would like to address a number of the issues raised by the two Greens senators speaking on this. I think there are a number of areas where they have grossly misrepresented the nature and the benefits of this PACER agreement. Also, clearly, they have no understanding of the strategic context. So I'd like to deal with both of those first.

In relation to the issue of who is joining this, 11 Pacific countries, as we know, have engaged in this already. In relation to the issue of Papua New Guinea, we would note that this is not the end of the agreement; this is just the start. The nations that are still considering joining this agreement are of course very welcome, but I would point out to the Greens that this is a sovereign decision of those nations. In relation to several comments from Senators McKim and Hanson-Young, I'd make this point: like my colleague Senator Fierravanti-Wells, I found them extremely patronising to those nations involved. These negotiations have been extensive and they have been done with the utmost mutual respect on behalf of all of the nations involved. Our officials and the former minister, Senator Fierravanti-Wells, as we've heard, were deeply engaged in this process. But I don't think the senators stopped to think about that or about our trade negotiators, who have spent many months, if not years, on these negotiations. I think that to suggest they were bullying or intimidating our partners in the region is, quite frankly, insulting, and the facts certainly do not bear that out.

In relation to the bill itself, PACER Plus is a regional-development-centred trade agreement. That is why I'm particularly proud to be taking the bill through this chamber today. To date, PACER Plus, as I said, has been signed by 11 member of the Pacific Islands Forum—that is, Australia, Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. As I said, this is just the start, and negotiations and discussions still continue with other nations.

PACER Plus will provide commercial opportunities for Australian exporters and investors in a range of sectors. These opportunities will increase over time as the provisions of the agreement lead to more open and transparent policies as wider relationships are built regionally and beyond. The agreement itself reflects Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific island countries' commitment to the principles of free and open trade. The underlying impetus for negotiating the PACER Plus and its goals of regional commercial integration is the formation of an interconnected Pacific market that includes Australia and New Zealand, which will enable the Pacific Islands greater access to a larger market for their own consumers and also for their producers, and that is a very good thing.

Despite the somewhat patronising and insulting comments from the Greens, I would just like to remind those in this chamber what this agreement is actually about. Australia and the Pacific island countries are longstanding partners and friends. We have common interests in both economic progress and regional stability. Our partners in the region range from countries richly endowed with people and resources to small atolls with geographically isolated populations. The PACER Plus agreement reflects this diversity as a comprehensive free trade agreement tailored to help Pacific island countries address their specific development challenges and also to assist them in a very sovereign respectful way to better participate in global trade and engage more effectively into global markets.

The coalition government has the most ambitious trade agenda in Australia's history. PACER Plus, a unique trade agreement to drive economic prosperity and raise living standards in our region, will complement our trade agreements already in force, which, I would note very happily, are delivering record export growth and creating hundreds of thousands of more local jobs.

As Senator Fierravanti-Wells has said, this is not a policy done in isolation and it is an important part of the objectives of Australia's white paper—and, again, I commend Senator Fierravanti-Wells for her role in developing this. The Foreign policy white paper has an important process called stepping up. Stepping up support for a more resilient Pacific is one of five priorities for Australia's foreign policy and is set out in the 2017 Foreign policy white paper released only 12 months ago. The white paper states that the Pacific is of fundamental importance to Australia and that 'Australia will engage with the Pacific with greater intensity and ambition'.

The white paper also announced new regional security cooperation initiatives, including the Australia Pacific Security College and work to improve regional information sharing. And we on this side of the chamber, and also the Labor Party, can see that this is an important role for Australia to play in our region. The white paper further reinforces the announcements made by Prime Minister Turnbull at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting year that Australia would step up its engagement through three things—that is, stronger partnerships for economic growth; stronger partnerships for security; and stronger relationships between people—and our PACER Plus agreement assists and works in all three of those areas.

Australia's longstanding development assistance to the Pacific has helped address many of the acute challenges facing the region over many years, including climate change and responding to natural disasters; sustaining economic growth and boosting education, skills and jobs for growing populations; gender equality and recognising the central role women play in achieving better development outcomes for their nations; the threat of major disease outbreak; and, increasingly, the threat of transnational crime across the Pacific. However, we do recognise that the complexities of these challenges demand deeper engagement, integrated policy and fresh ideas to drive transformative change in the region, and this is where PACER Plus assists in that process. Australia's stepped-up engagement is our response to these significant long-term challenges.

In relation to the bills, while PACER Plus provides a framework for integration, dedicated assistance is critical to barriers in Pacific Islands signatories and unlocking the benefits PACER Plus provides for this assistance. The PACER Plus bills represent the key legislative changes required to give effect to the new rules of origin required to implement PACER Plus. The Customs Act 1901 is being amended to include the new rules-of-origin requirements and to enable a full set of related product-specific rules to be made in keeping with our modern free trade agreements. The amendments contained in the legislation will enable eligible goods that satisfy PACER Plus rules of origin to be entered into Australia at preferential rates of customs duty. The Customs Tariff Act 1995 is being amended to set out the preferential rate of customs duty for goods that satisfy the new rules-of-origin requirements. These new rules are consistent with existing arrangements for duties imposed on excise equivalent goods.

Without these amendments, Australia would not be able to complete its domestic arrangements, and the agreement would not be able to enter into force. This would prevent Australian businesses from receiving the various benefits that would flow from the agreement, but it would also prevent the equally significant, if not more significant, benefits that would flow to the PACER Plus partners. It is important that Australia be amongst the first eight countries to ratify, as early ratification would signal Australia's commitment to PACER Plus. As we've talked about in this chamber and in other places many times, PACER Plus is very important for the maintenance of rules based order and rules based trade in the Indo-Pacific region. As I said, PACER Plus does provide commercial opportunities for Australian exporters and investors in a wide range of sectors. These opportunities will increase over time as the provision of the agreement will lead to more open and transparent policies, both here and across the other 10 partners who have already signed up. This agreement reflects our principles of free and open trade and rules based trade. PACER Plus will enter into force 60 days after the eighth signatory notifies Tonga, as the depositary, that it has ratified the agreement.

I'd just like to come back to the point that the Greens made in relation to the 11 countries who are ratifying this and are initial signatories. They specifically raised Fiji and Papua New Guinea. As I've noted in this place, PACER Plus is a truly regional agreement which has 11 Pacific Islands Forum members. PACER Plus will deliver benefits for these nations. Despite the assertions of those on the Greens benches, this hasn't been done in a way that is disrespectful of these nations' sovereignty and it is not disrespectful of those governments. This has been done over an extended period of time with them as partners. Extensive engagement has been undertaken by these nations. In fact, the information that I have back from the minister and the teams who were responsible for this at the time is that this was done in a truly respectful way. We listened to our Pacific partners. There was wide consultation.

The development assistance that is so important that is embedded in this agreement was worked out with each of the individual Pacific island nations, to find out what they needed for this. I would say—through you, Mr Acting Deputy President—to my Greens colleagues in this chamber: this was done with them as full sovereign partners in the process. It was done in a new way to provide the development assistance from Australia and New Zealand that these nations recognise that they need to develop their capability, their processes, their systems and their trade regulations and legislation to make sure that they can engage in the international trade environment.

The Customs Amendment (Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus Implementation) Bill 2018 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus Implementation) Bill 2018 represent the main legislative changes for the new rules of origin under PACER Plus.

With those comments I again thank those opposite in the Labor Party for their engagement and support for these bills, I thank all those officials who were engaged in these negotiations for that time, and I also commend the government for this agreement, because I as the minister now responsible think that this is the way forward for our free trade agreements: to not only look at how we as a nation might benefit from this process but also assist other nations and other regional partners, ensuring they are capable of maintaining sovereign trade interests and trade with other countries where their size and their location may in the past have prohibited them from doing so. I commend these bills to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bills read a second time.