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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20553

Mr ADAMS (10:11 AM) —I was interested to read the report from the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade following their inquiry and visit to central Europe. I had been on a previous visit to Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic a few years ago and looked at a number of the trade areas, as well as Australia's relationship with that part of the world. I thought there were good opportunities developing, looking at Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic coming out of the old Soviet bloc and into market economies, with their needs for building their economies. I must say at the start that I thoroughly endorse recommendation 7, which is to establish a Czech Republic Embassy. I found it odd that there had not been one for a while and, although ably served by the then Ambassador in Poland, not having a permanent ambassador did seem to limit what our country was doing in the Czech Republic. I think it is time that we had an ambassador and a full embassy in the Czech Republic.

Prague is a wonderful place to visit and I remember with great glee looking at the 16th century architecture throughout Prague. I note that glass was one of the largest minor import areas. While there, I visited a glass factory which had undertaken contracts with Waterford in Ireland because their crystal glass industry had been developed over many centuries in the Czech Republic. I noted that the working conditions there were pretty poor—they were still in fifties and sixties type factories as opposed to modern technology—but they were continuing their great skills. The crystal cutting was something that you had to note when you saw people working in that area. The dust in the air was of concern to me. I thought they would probably not survive into the future with that sort of working condition. However, it supplies local jobs. It is an industry that they have a lot of skill in and they have continued into the new era.

Both Hungary and Poland offered some quite considerable prospects for Australia. They had been involved in ongoing development and therefore provided an entry for Australia through those portals when those countries went into the EU. I think our private sector was a bit behind the times by not being there but there are opportunities for the future. Australia is a minor player in that part of the world and they see us as being a long way away from them. Probably one of the issues that came through to me was that they thought Australia was a long way away to trade and to be involved with, other than with the local connections. People sort of dismissed us for that.

This showed up in the number of tourists in some areas as well. Australians did not seem to rate central Europe greatly in their travel plans at that stage. I do not know whether the statistics have improved or whether people are travelling in that area now. That was with the exception of the Czech Republic, of course, which is renowned for its theatre, fine arts, commercial crafts—the red stone jewellery which seems to be everywhere—and glassware. As I said, I had the fortune of meeting one of their senators, who was a rather old gentleman whose family had owned the glassworks for 250 years until the communist regime; then he was given it back 50 years later. He was very pleased to show me over it.

I see countries in this area as really ripe for new types of skills, and there is a need for them to remodel and reskill. Where we can work in joint ventures in the area, we should be able to do very well. Therefore recommendation 16, which includes many of the areas where Australia excels, would prove to be useful as a means by which companies could consider these sorts of ventures in Europe. However, in all this we have to consider how trade relationships have developed since the 1980s. It seems to me that many of the developing countries are being used to enhance the profits of a number of multinationals, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank rather than encouraging the countries to work out their own economic problems. With the opportunities of low-interest loans they squeeze the countries so that they can no longer afford to pay the interest rates or the debts they have accumulated.

In some ways central Europe can be seen as a developing country. They are still in that developing stage because of where they are in terms of investment and technology. Economically, they have been isolated for quite some time and since the early nineties have been working towards their entry into the EU. So when we enter into trade agreements with these countries—or with any country—we must try to seek fair, rather than free, trade which takes into consideration the local conditions and the local needs. We need to look at trade which will enhance the development of the local economies without putting undue pressure on them to compete. The economies are pretty fragile in many regards. They need to be assisted in developing some additional social services to allow labour to be organised, to see that fair wages are being paid on competing activities. Shifting our companies offshore in order to try to get cheap labour will, in the long run, be of little assistance.

So, while it is important as a country to ensure Australia's interests are served when developing trade relationships, this must not be at the expense of the other trading partner. It should be of mutual benefit to all. While I support the principle of developing trade with many countries, I think we must be careful of how it is to be achieved. Free trade is translated a little differently nowadays, and the goals of world bodies have changed. We talk of the interests of bodies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, which are really groups of unelected people who decide which countries get aid, who make trading conditions in those trading countries desperate for assistance and who wish to ensure the flow of capital around the world through these free-market mechanisms.

Many of the discussions that I have read about lately talk of the level playing field when referring to free trade. However, there seems to be only one playing field, and that is tipped to ensure all the funds run one way—and that is into the coffers of many Western institutions. Who determines the international free trade agenda that understands that bilateral free trade agreements can complement and encourage the wider free trade objectives in APEC and the WTO? If I had more time I would give many examples of where free trade does anything but push for global economic prosperity, improved living standards and greater opportunities for the developing world. It almost works or has worked in reverse in some countries.

There are examples in our own country and in my own state of Tasmania. I can quote personally from the argument that Tasmania should not allow fresh, uncooked salmon in from Canada and other places in the world. Because growers were concerned about a very virulent virus that these fish may carry, the Tasmanian government took the fight to the WTO, but the WTO representatives were very insistent that this issue of disease was not a trade issue but was only a quarantine one and should be dealt with as such. They seem to be trying to isolate trade from social issues, quarantine and everything else. I do not believe you can do that.

This was a fledging industry that was desperately trying to keep its salmon free of disease and developed in an isolated environment, which would allow a marketing opportunity for Tasmania's clean, green sales pitch. We do not allow fruit and fresh fish in from the mainland of Australia. Only yesterday the state minister authorised the seizure of uncooked salmon from Norway. We have temporarily won a reprieve but, if there are the usual mechanisms that work with the WTO and the arguments for free trade, such quarantine arguments will not be able to work for long and people will work on breaking them down.

It is vital that Australia builds relationships with Europe as well as in its own region, but it should be on terms that do not destroy jobs in those areas and that allow for human dignity and a chance to better the living standards of all by keeping social spending up and ensuring that economic directions are run by countries in their own right, rather than by the control and direction of the World Bank. So although I wish to keep trade as a means by which we can relate to other countries, it should not be at the expense of the people of those countries.

I remember the opportunities that are always put forward: that Australian farmers are very economical in their structures—and many are. But there are also a lot of reports around to show that Australian farmers are using water uneconomically—the price of water is not economical—that the way we are using the soil is not sustainable and that there are many unprofitable rural properties operating within Australia. If you look at it from another perspective, we might not be as effective in some ways as we feel we are. With regard to this report, I am sure that our members did the best for us as a country while they were visiting this part of the world. I certainly hope that the arrangements that will come out of this report and the goodwill that it creates are in the best interests of Australia.