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Wednesday, 28 February 2001
Page: 24703

Mr KERR (10:00 AM) —The opposition support the proposals contained in the Customs Tariff Act 1995 but want to make a couple of observations. The first is an observation that flows from the way in which nuisance tariffs have been removed. It is plain to see that on a number of occasions we have had to return to the parliament, having had so-called nuisance tariffs removed and then on further investigation discovered that there remains a local manufacturer, to have the tariff reinstated. It is simply stating the obvious to say that it is unfortunate that the initial inquiries undertaken by the government did not identify these factors in the first place, because, plainly, manufacturers for whom the small five per cent tariff still remains of economical value are placed in an awkward position if that is removed on the assertion that there is no local manufacturer. There is one provision in this Customs Tariff Amendment Bill (No. 4) 2000 relating to a woven fibreglass fabric which falls squarely within that kind of circumstance. The government, having identified that such a manufacturer exists, is reinstating the five per cent rate on duty on that woven fibreglass fabric. One cannot oppose that, but certainly we draw attention to the fact that it would be better if such errors were not made in the first place.

The second point of note regarding the specifics of the bill is that it implements the duty reductions on tariff items from five per cent to three per cent, which flows from the settlement reached between the Australian and the United States governments in the Howe Leather trade dispute. There are few in this chamber who would not believe that the issue of Howe Leather could have been handled better. It has been a running sore. The resolution of that—whilst of necessity a matter which comes before this chamber and which we support—again reflects poorly on the administration of the government over a substantial period of time, a period of time which has caused considerable uncertainty to those employed by Howe Leather, and no doubt has caused considerable concern to those in the management and ownership of that company who have seen this battered around the place like a ping-pong ball, with their interests not having been given paramount attention. Both those points need to be made, but nonetheless, given the circumstances and the background, we see no alternative but to support the measures in the bill that provide for the removal of tariff on the items relating to the Howe Leather settlement.

We include in the bill provisions which add Angola and Madagascar to the list of least developed countries for the purposes of the Customs Act. It is useful to reflect a little more broadly on the way in which global trade requires us to develop a more comprehensive approach to the difficulties faced by least developed countries. All the research shows that, on average, open markets and freer global trade lead to average increases in general wealth—and that is to be welcomed—but it ignores the distributional consequences of the way in which that wealth is shared. The research that is available to us shows that both within countries and between countries there has been an increasing gulf between those who benefit from open markets and globalisation and those who have been left behind in that very high-powered game.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, speaking in Davos just last month, drew attention to the fact that in his opinion it is unsustainable to continue a system of global trading which ignores the growing gulf between those most advantaged by the economic growth that has been stimulated by open markets and those left behind. In particular, he drew attention to the fact that the least developed nations have suffered real declines in their living standards over the time in which global wealth has increased very substantially. It is very important for us in this parliament to realise that we are not, as John Donne says, an island. We have to take into account the fact that our actions impact on others and theirs on ours. We now live in an increasingly globalised environment where the very concept of what is foreign and what is national has become blurred.

It is impossible for us not to find ways to address this growing gulf of inequality. We also have to address it within our national framework. There is no doubt that there is considerable unease in sectors of the Australian community that have not benefited, as have some parts of the country, from the economic growth generated through open markets and global trade. For example, Sydney is plainly becoming a global city and is benefiting immensely from internationalisation of trade, the growth in the services sector and the new economy that has been generated from the technological revolution of the late 20th century. However, other parts of Australia have been left behind, and the cost of ignoring that sector of the community is being imparted very dramatically to us as members of the Australian parliament. The practice of turning a blind eye to that, on the basis that globalisation and economic openness are essentially good things because they promote growth, is, in the long term, quite unsustainable if it ignores those who are actually being left behind.

These are factors that we need to take into account when we think about our responses to legislation such as the Customs Tariff Act, but it goes more broadly into how we approach negotiations such as the coming World Trade Organisation round. The last millennium round ended in failure and, whatever the specifics of why those negotiations ceased and came to no fruition, one of the underlying arguments which was used by those opposing the WTO millennium round—notwithstanding all the political difficulties associated with the United States' commitment to labour standards, which were thought unacceptable by large components of the least developed countries and others—was that, with economic growth, attention had not been sufficiently focused on fairness. We all have to carefully bear in mind that when we say that economic benefits have been flowing from open markets and globalisation we are speaking of averages, and averages can always be deceptive.

If, for example, we all start on the same level with an income of $5 and, at the end of two years, half have found that their income has remained unchanged, a quarter that their income has doubled and a quarter that their income has been slightly reduced, it is perhaps easy to say, `Well, on average there has been a benefit flowing from globalisation,' but it ignores the fact that the greatest benefits have gone to a few, many have not been significantly advantaged, and some have actually been left further behind. When, amongst those who have been left further behind, there is a significant component of those who already were the least advantaged and least developed components of our communities internationally and those who were struggling domestically, it is a recipe for political instability and for lack of commitment to long-term economic cooperation.

Those are some of the larger questions which I believe we need to address as parliamentarians. We are being forced to address them by growing community unease, but we need to address them, simply because they are the correct issues for us to identify and respond to; and responses increasingly need to be transnational as well as national. Without wishing to be a self-promoter, some of these issues have been identified in my recent publication, Elect the Ambassador!: Building Democracy in a Globalised World, which Pluto Press published about a fortnight ago and which I hope some of my colleagues are taking the trouble to read and take account of.

With those few remarks, I commend these measures. The opposition commends some of these measures reluctantly, simply because they reflect the tidying up of mistakes that ought not to have been made in the first place. Others are important because they recognise the particular difficulties that some of the least developed countries face and the need for them to be treated in ways which are more generous than those that apply to countries generally. The opposition supports this package of measures.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—Before I call the next speaker, I indicate to the member for Denison that, while I have not read his book, I did hear him discussing and promoting it on the ABC.