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Thursday, 21 June 2001
Page: 28397

Dr THEOPHANOUS (11:48 AM) —I want to raise some issues concerning the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In particular, I want to raise the issue of the low level of trade that exists between Australia and eastern European countries. In a visit that I took to three eastern European countries last year, which I provided the minister a report about, the situation in relation to trade with respect to eastern Europe was appalling. It is quite unacceptable. The department's own figures show that Australia's exports to Croatia were $2 million and imports were $10 million and Australia's exports to Hungary were $7 million and imports were $78 million. We do slightly better with Romania, with $62 million, but that is the only one of the eastern European countries that we do moderately well with, and that is nearly all raw materials.

I have asked this previously but, given that in Australia we have huge communities from eastern Europe, why is it that the department of trade and Austrade do not employ enough people of a bilingual background or a background from those countries—I am talking about Australians who are here from those countries—to work to boost our trade performance in eastern Europe? It is quite unbelievable that we have one of the biggest Croatian communities in the world and yet our trade with Croatia is so pathetically low, and similarly with these other countries. It is not just the three countries that I have mentioned. There are other countries in eastern Europe which are very important and where our trade situation is just not good enough.

I know the government feels that it needs to focus on Asia, and trade with Asia, and I have no quarrel with that. But the government said when it was elected that its foreign policy would not be directed primarily at Asia but that it would be a more balanced foreign policy. Why then are we not getting more trade with eastern Europe? Many countries, including Asian countries, are getting into the eastern European market. We are talking about a market of millions and millions of people—a market in which we are not getting anything like a sufficient amount of trade and investment. One of the reasons is, as I said, we are not employing enough Australians from those countries in the department or in Austrade to go there and be on the spot. They could even help organise delegations and what have you with respect to trade with these countries.

I think this is a critical matter. We cannot put all our eggs in the one basket in relation to trade. We should be focusing on this whole series of countries that became independent after the fall of the Soviet Union or that were independent but were within the Soviet bloc. These countries are now available for trade, for investment and for participation. You might say that we are a bit far away; but we have the very dramatic advantage of having very big communities from some of those countries—for example, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia. We visit those communities in our roles as members of parliament and we know about them. They are part of multicultural Australia. Why aren't we doing more to promote trade in relation to those countries?

The second aspect of trade I want to refer to briefly is this virtual veto that has been placed on the participation of Australian companies in the 2004 Olympic Games. (Extension of time granted) I raised this issue in parliament after my visit to Athens where our diplomats were in a very difficult situation trying to negotiate a reasonable deal with respect to the Greek government's determination that effectively prevents the participation of Australian companies in major projects of the Olympic Games of 2004. Australian companies gained a lot of experience with our Olympic Games. We gained enormous experience. We have the possibility of very competitive tenders in relation to this. I discovered when I was there that, because of the imposition of a very small provision in the World Trade Organisation arrangements—where Australia has failed to sign a technical provision—they were using this as an excuse for effectively preventing Australian companies from tendering.

I know that the Prime Minister, the Minister for Trade and several other people have written to both the European Union and the government of Greece about this matter, but that was months ago. What is happening with this? One small concession was made as a result of all of this, and that concession was that Australian companies could participate in some joint ventures—but not as equal partners; they have to become totally subsidiary participants. In other words, they have to play a minor role within the Greek companies or European companies that are making submissions in relation to this. This is a totally unacceptable outcome.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of Australian know-how, goods and services may not be provided for the Athens Olympic Games. That is what is at stake. We need to know that the government is going to do more about this. We have done the polite thing: we have written to the European Union and the government of Greece. What is going to happen next? These tenders will soon be finished and Australia will miss out. That issue needs to be confronted and we need to deal with it.

I want to raise one other matter in relation to trade. It concerns the question: what happens when people and delegations, especially from Asian and Arabic countries, wish to come to Australia to explore trade possibilities and they are stopped from doing so by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs? This government talks about how it wants to promote trade and investment, but we know of a large number of groups and organisations which have tried to bring delegations here, especially from China, India and other Asian countries, and from Arabic countries, and the rules—not the actual law, as this is done very cleverly by the department of immigration—are applied in such a way that they either prevent those people coming in on short-term business visas, or the department makes such a fuss about and requires so much documentation and there are so many things to be checked out that the people give up and go to some other country to do their business. That is not good enough.

A provision in the act or an arrangement is required whereby, if a group wants to visit for trade purposes and it is rejected by Immigration, there should be some way of appealing to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to see whether they can assist such a group. That should happen so that we do not get these ridiculous situations where very genuine groups which want to come here are prevented from doing so and from engaging in trade. (Time expired)