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Thursday, 19 August 1993
Page: 318

Senator SPINDLER —My question is directed to the Minister for Trade. I refer the minister to the Uruguay Round of GATT and the reported concerns of the Clinton administration that the GATT proposals will be used to depress health, safety, food and environmental standards in the United States. First, has the Australian government sought to incorporate in GATT standards on food labelling, product and work safety, health and environmental protection which safeguard Australia's standards and/or advance global standards? Secondly, has the minister made a detailed assessment of the extent to which the Dunkel proposals specify international standards which are below those maintained in Australia? Thirdly, will he undertake not to sign the Uruguay Round agreement until GATT standards have been lifted to at least the Australian levels?

Senator COOK —I am delighted to receive a question on the GATT because the Uruguay Round, which has now been running for seven years, is coming up to the endgame of the negotiations. The negotiations resume in Geneva on 1 September and they are to be completed by 15 December. Seven years of negotiating work is coming to fruition in those last three months. Since the value to Australia in extra income from a strong outcome to the round when fully implemented is about an extra $2.5 billion, we can expect that, in the last few months as we complete the negotiations for the round, there will be endless forays to deflect our attention and try to put obstacles in our course for successfully bringing this round to conclusion. I am not accusing Senator Spindler of putting an obstacle in our course, but I am saying that his question betrays a fundamentally flawed understanding of what the GATT itself is about.

Senator Kernot —GATT is a raging success!

Senator COOK —No, please listen to this because it is now important more than ever for us to have a clear understanding of what the GATT does and does not do. For example, the GATT does not impose environmental standards; the GATT does not impose labour standards; and the GATT does not impose labelling standards or things of that nature such as Senator Spindler referred to in his question. What the GATT does is proclaim a set of rules to ensure that trade in the world among the contracting parties to the agreement is fair, free and transparent. So, if a country is using environmental standards as a non-tariff barrier, then the rules under the GATT would expose that and then deal with it.

  This does not in any way prevent countries like Australia or the United States—or any country—imposing their own environmental standards for environmental reasons. But we would be naive in the extreme to think that, on labour standards, environmental standards, labelling standards and a whole range of other standards, some countries in the world do not exploit the idealism of some groups in the community and use false implementation of those things as non-tariff barriers to prevent free trade. That, I think, answers the first question.

  Let me turn to questions two and three. The questions of detailed assessment and delaying of the signature to the Uruguay Round agreement do not arise. On what Senator Spindler has put, we certainly would not, should there be a successfully concluded outcome, delay our signature. This is because the GATT and the Uruguay Round text on technical barriers to trade, the revised standards codes and the sanitary and phytosanitary measures will not impose specific standards on Australia and the GATT will therefore not undermine Australia's ability to maintain its own high level of environmental and other standards.

  What I suggest—because I know that Senator Coulter has a notice of motion which is similarly flawed in its understanding of the role of GATT—is that if the Democrats, the Greens or the independent members here would like a full briefing on the GATT, I would be delighted to give it. For Australia this is the most significant multilateral trade negotiation that we have undertaken. What is at risk here, if we miscue on this, is a loss of income of $2.5 billion a year and a commensurate reduction in Australian living standards. Before anyone does anything rash about this, he or she should understand the full implications of what is involved.

Senator SPINDLER —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I think our concern is that if the government proceeds as it has in the past, the costs from this will be much greater than the benefits. May I draw the minister's attention to the fact that Australia has lodged an appeal against the energy tax that the United States wanted to impose to advance its performance under the Montreal protocol to reduce the greenhouse effect in the United States, and of course globally. That is an example of what the Uruguay Round can be used for. The burden of my question is that those opposite do not do that for Australia.

Senator COOK —Once again, I renew my invitation. I ask honourable senators to please get a full briefing on this. This is an issue which is too important for it to be misunderstood. Australia has not done what Senator Spindler has accused us of doing. Australia has not opposed any measure on energy taxes by the Clinton administration. We have expressed our view about a form of tax being suggested by some in Congress which would impose an energy tax on countries that export goods and services into the United States and tax those exports from, for example, Australia on the basis of their energy component. That in its own way is a non-tariff barrier to trade.

  I just suggest that these issues cannot be dealt with in the thrust of debate across this chamber. They are significant, weighty and substantial matters affecting our future economic well-being. I do renew the invitation. I ask honourable senators to please come and talk about this, so that at least there is a clear understanding between us about where we differ and what the facts are.