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Tuesday, 25 September 2001
Page: 31404

Mr ADAMS (6:17 PM) —I rise to speak on the Customs Tariff Amendment Bill (No. 4) 2001. This bill is to provide for the duty-free importation of prescribed goods for use in a space project authorised by the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources. It also includes technical amendments consequential to the commencement of the Automotive Competitiveness and Investment Scheme. The bill also explains the SPARTECA (TCF Provisions) Scheme and the South Pacific Regional Trade and Economic Cooperation Agreement, which came into force in the early 1980s, and how it can be used to foster duty-free and restricted access to the markets of Australia and New Zealand over as wide a range of products as possible.

The bill also allows me to talk generally about Customs practice as far as Australia is concerned. Even with those countries we are trying to assist to develop a regional economy there are some difficulties because of the interests of other countries in those island nations and because Customs here appears to have more discretion than in other nations. It seems to play an independent arbitrator's role sometimes, rather than going into bat for Australia. I find this very peculiar.

Turning to dumping issues, we have certainly been targeted as a good place to dump; for example, Japan's second-hand cars. Fortunately, I believe we have probably been able to head that one off. But we have not been so lucky with such things as paper pulp and paper from Indonesia and the current concern of the possible dumping of cement from China. The inquiry into cement dumping has been dragging on for some time. There have been some huge concerns here. I think a proper analysis of the facts will reveal a significant dumping margin for the imports from China. The chairman of the cement industry told me this week that, currently, the export prices of cement are artificially high, while local prices in China are low as a result of the government's controls on the market. Therefore, injury to the Australian industry from cement dumping is very substantial—in excess of $200 million in lost sales revenue.

It is not self-inflicted through import parity pricing, as Customs suggests. Everybody is waiting for Customs to respond with its last Access assessment of facts, which was supposed to appear in August but did not. There has been little transparency in the case, nor has there been any response to the two very significant legal issues. Both matters have a direct bearing on whether Customs adopts a stance that is supportive of Australian industry or whether it has provided a free kick to the importers.

That is my point in straying a little from the main thrust of this bill and talking more generally on the approach of Customs to inquiries, such as the one being undertaken on cement. I remember only too well the problems the paper industry faced with the dumping inquiry in Indonesia. There was supposed to be a proper inspection of sites and a weighing up of the conditions under which paper was made in that country. But it was a sham job and, somehow, Australia's superior work practices, the best practice conditions, are ignored in the assessment. There must be a transparent process for the determination of a non-injurious price that has due regard to ensuring that a commercial return for the Australian industry is inherent in the determination.

It appears that the same is happening in cement. So do Customs give Australian manufacturers a fair go? I believe that is a very fair and telling question. I do not think they do. Other countries seem to provide a much more level playing field for their local industries. We are constantly losing jobs to overseas because of this. I think there should be some changes made, and I will be seeking some reform in the area of anti-dumping. Labor in government would, I think, look for a review in this area.

I would like to start with the cement industry's own critique, which was spelled out in a recent speech by the cement industry chairman. I believe that should form part of any rewriting of the Customs antidumping rules, and I thank him for his clear and concise suggestions. We need to divorce this part of Customs activity from its other regulatory roles. There should be an independent and publicly accountable agency, maybe like the US scheme, with a panel of commissioners. The objectives of that scheme are to provide an antidumping regime consistent with the WTO requirements and current practices in major OECD countries and other trade competitive countries. These objectives should focus on domestic industries and their economic imperatives and exclude the pursuit of longer-term trade policy goals. The analysis and decision making processes of the agency are transparent and open to all parties, subject to appropriate confidentiality, for commercial information and based on transparent case law.

The conclusions of the agency would be subject to consideration by a panel of independent experts, including business and commercial people. The agency must be properly resourced to handle cases within the time frame of the current legislation, and resources should include appropriate commercial skilled investigative staff. Appropriate procedures should be flexible so that temporary antidumping measures can be implemented very quickly, in order to ensure that Australian industry is not crippled financially while a full investigation is undertaken. It would ensure that Australian industry is not disadvantaged by drawn-out administrative and regulatory reforms that have changed industry and that regulatory circumstances are considered in a more timely manner.

This industry has been enormously forward-thinking with its proposals, and it has begun extensive discussions with other industries that are facing similar problems. Indeed, the motor industry could also be facing some of them, as my colleague from South Australia—the honourable member for Kingston, Mr Cox—pointed out.

We have to give Australian industries a fair go and not keep rushing for the underdog's position against the financial heavyweights of the world—Japan, the US and Europe. There is no level playing field. The dice are loaded against a small-population country like Australia. We need our Customs, at least, playing on our side and not playing Solomon for who knows what reason. I believe that it is okay to be biased in favour of Australia, unless the other side categorically proves that there have been some unfair practices. We seem to cop the unfair practices all the time, and the WTO will not be sympathetic to any one party unless we can prove that we have been wronged. Even that is a long, drawn-out process which bears little resemblance to the notion of fair trading.

It is important to have arrangements with countries to help trade develop, and, in the case of this bill, the entry of duty-free goods from the forum island countries can be seen as a way of helping our neighbours. We must ensure that we are not, at the same time, putting our own people out of work. In fact, in the discussion during the tabling of the report of the inquiry into the World Trade Organisation yesterday, I was speaking about the difficulties of the small countries. I had only about four minutes to speak on the report after a year's work. The report is Report 42, Who's afraid of the WTO?—Australia and the World Trade Organisation. It was pointed out in submissions to that inquiry that it is difficult for developing countries to understand the uniqueness of Australia's position. It has been proven that we do have something a bit different here, particularly recently after the mad cow and foot-and-mouth diseases rendered the European meat industry virtually morbid.

Australia has been able, to some degree, to fill the gap—almost like an emergency supplier. The WTO needs to have suppliers of disease-free product to help countries where there are problems with the home-grown stock. We do have a different status from many other continents, and our boundaries are reasonably secure. The recommendation within that section was to apply the precautionary principle on a proper basis. There was recognition too that many developing countries have difficulties in meeting the guidelines and that there are many barriers to their participation in the WTO. We need to be more generous as a nation to try to help bring their quality and standards up— firstly, to prevent them from indulging in dumping and, secondly, so they can use their work force for both domestic and export markets in a similar manner, so that no subsidies are hidden by applying local standards. Once again there is a corollary with cement and paper pulp which is causing Australia quite considerable problems, because there is a judgment that competition is equal when it is not.

Yesterday I was trying to say, during the tabling of the report, that trade is never debated in this House. We get to debate customs because of the customs bills, but we never get to debate trade. There are no trade bills. Occasionally, the trade minister tables a report on expectations for the following year, but we do not have long debates in this House, and I am sure the shadow minister for agriculture, fisheries and forestry, who is at the table, would agree that trade is a neglected subject around this chamber.

Mr O'Connor —Especially under this government.

Mr ADAMS —This government have never risen to the occasion, other than to stand at the dispatch box at question time and try to argue about how well they have done.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 p.m. to 8.00 p.m.

Mr ADAMS —Prior to the dinner adjournment, I was speaking to the Customs Tariff Amendment Bill (No. 4) 2001 in the second reading debate. I was speaking about the Customs department and some of the issues and problems of antidumping found in the industries of pulp and paper and cement in my electorate. I also touched on the lack of debate about trade in this chamber, which we need to remedy. There are rarely bills dealing with trade as such; there are sometimes debates on agriculture, but not on trade itself. We need to have more time to debate trade, the WTO and issues of that sort. I mention that in relation to Report 42—Who's afraid of the WTO? brought down yesterday by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. There is a fine line and I do not think that Customs are equipped to deliver those political decisions any more than AQIS are able to take on those decisions. I want to see change and I will be seeking this through the organs of my party, and we will certainly be pursuing this if we gain government.

Although this bill is a minor one in the sense of being non-controversial and the opposition is not opposing the bill, my colleague from South Australia the member for Kingston, who takes a great interest in the car industry in his state, has an amendment to this bill. There are a number of issues that go much deeper and that need to be addressed. As I said, we need to bring trade into this chamber much more often, especially issues to do with the WTO so that there are many more public debates in that area. Other than that, I have pleasure in supporting the bill and will support the amendment moved by the Labor Party.