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Thursday, 5 December 1985
Page: 3082


Senator DURACK(9.37) —The Opposition will oppose the Australian Trade Commission Bill and the Australian Trade Commission (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill because, in our view, they represent further unnecessary regulation without really tackling the major trade problems confronting Australia. The recent trade figures highlight the tragic state of the Australian economy. The October trade deficit of $1.6 billion is an all-time record for one month. This should be of grave concern. Yet the Government, in a traditional response, is only proposing to establish another quango without abolishing the existing trade bureaucracy. In addition, cumbersome export permit requirements remain. In the last week or so, in the threats that the Minister for Trade (Mr Dawkins) has made against the Gove Peninsula consortium, we have had dramatic examples of the extent to which this Government will go in enforcing export controls. We know that many Australian companies have missed out on trade they could have won if they had been able to move more quickly to secure export approval. In most cases, industry should not be required to seek prior approval.

The Opposition has already stated that it would phase out such export controls. This would directly assist further development within Australia, based on a sharp increase in Australian exports. Deregulation of these trade controls on exports is a direct and positive move that the Government could and should be taking now. These Bills, which largely are of a cosmetic and window-dressing nature, do nothing to rectify our current trade problems. It is a typical bureaucratic response to a problem. What we require is instant and entrepreneurial responses which, of course, these Bills do not provide in any shape or form.

While on the face of it these measures represent some rationalisation of the existing trade bureaucracy, there is no substantial change or new initiative in this exercise. Indeed, the new quango will have greater and expanded powers beyond those available to the three separate bodies which it will replace. In addition this power will be largely outside the scrutiny of this Parliament. It is quite unrealistic to expect improved efficiency in results from a new statutory authority, particularly as it will be staffed largely by the same public servants and viewed with the same experience and same attitudes to overseas trade.

In the Opposition's view the development of overseas markets should essentially be a matter for industry. These Bills will not ensure that industry will win a share of any overseas markets. That can be achieved only if industry is free to seek out markets, is encouraged to do so and remains competitive. Unfortunately, high and increasing government regulation and taxes serve only to reduce this competitiveness. Any assistance that may be provided by way of these Bills will be overshadowed, if not lost, if that competitiveness is not improved. Merely facilitating and encouraging trade is insufficient if on the other hand industry is restricted by controls and government costs in developing and capturing new markets. As I have said, these Bills do nothing to rectify that fundamental problem with our overseas trade. They just rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

These Bills will permit the Minister to absolve himself and the Government from the activities of the Australian Trade Commission. Will this Commission be just another directionless quango, soaking up taxpayers' money without providing any substantial benefits? There is certainly a danger that this will be the case. We have growing numbers of examples of just this situation. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australian Bicentennial Authority, Trans Australia Airlines and the Australian Postal Commission are classic examples. In our view the Government should be getting out of these operations and not rearranging them and establishing new organisations, of which this Bill is a prime example. There has been little interest in the proposal from those who are supposed to be assisted by it, and no wonder. There is some scepticism about the usefulness of this body and concern that the Commission could in time, and with minimal amendment, carry on trading activity on its own authority in a similar way to the Commonwealth Banking Corporation. The Commission will be allowed to form companies and join partnerships or consortiums to further its aims, whatever these may turn out to be. Again this raises the spectre of overseas trade being a nationalised activity with the Government excluding and preventing the competitiveness of industry. Competitiveness, of course, is the only way we can improve our trading position.

Some months ago, at the time of the May economic statement, which is now looking very tattered and torn, the coalition supported the overall thrust of the Government's attempts to contain expenditure within the export market development grant schemes. However, any benefits that may have come from the May economic statement, which is pretty tattered already as a result of the Government having reversed so many of its decisions, will be further depleted by these Bills. We are told that the new Commission will have a staff of about 1,400 and a budget of the order of $200m. Can we expect to get $200m extra trade as a result of the activities of this Commission? We are most sceptical about that. It is obvious that much, if not most, of this $200m will go on staff wages and staff entitlements. It will certainly not go effectively on improving Australia's export performance. It is really quite a disaster that the Government's response to this vital problem is simply to throw more taxpayers' money at a problem it could solve by getting out of this area and not further into it.

The Opposition has demonstrated a practical commitment to export incentives and support for initiatives designed to improve that export performance. We certainly do not think that this reshuffling exercise will achieve that or any other purpose. Export industries look as though they are just going to be left to languish until we are returned to government with a forward and effective policy of encouraging the private sector to solve this problem. The piecemeal approach that is demonstrated by the Government and highlighted by these Bills will not improve it. Certainly, the Government does not appear to have any overall strategy to solve our overseas trade problem.

It seems as though on this issue the Hawke Government, despite its rhetoric about dereg- ulation and encouragement of the private sector, has simply run out of steam, and its only response to this problem is to establish another quango, another statutory corporation, another bureaucracy. These Bills do not offer any positive approach or promise any effective returns. The Opposition will not support the proposition for a new trade commission, a new statutory authority, a new quango, and we will vote against the Bills.