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Monday, 6 September 1993
Page: 985

Senator O'CHEE (10.46 p.m.) —I really am very sorry tonight to have to come in here and do what I am about to do. I am forced to give this speech as an act of desperation because I am extremely disappointed with the conduct of our banks collectively in regard to a matter which I personally experienced last week.

  As some honourable senators may know, I have recently returned from Taipei. I came back with a couple of thousand Taiwanese dollars, which does not make me as wealthy as it may sound to honourable senators, unfortunately. Like any traveller coming back from overseas with a pocketful of money, when I got into Australia I sought to change that money back into our currency. As is frequently the case, people do not always change all their money when they leave a country because they may wish to purchase something duty free, or something like that. Frequently, travellers come back with money in their pockets either intentionally or accidentally. Sometimes they forget that they had a little wad of notes in a pocket in a jacket somewhere.

  I arrived back in Canberra on Friday afternoon. I had some constituency work to do and immediately sought to negotiate those notes at my bank. I was told that it was not possible. I tried two of the other major banks and was also told that it was not possible because, although the banks had pictures of Taiwanese currency, the banks did not exchange Taiwanese currency as they would other foreign currency.

  Honourable senators might say, `Who cares?'. The point is that Taiwan, or the Republic of China, as it wishes to call itself, is now our sixth largest trading partner. In the 1991-92 financial year, we had a balance of payments surplus with Taiwan of $559 million. Our total exports to Taiwan in the 1991-92 financial year were over $2,537 million. Taiwan is our sixth largest destination by value for our exports and our sixth largest trading partner, if one ranks it in terms of the balance of trade surplus between our country and Taiwan.

  It is absolutely absurd that our trading banks between them cannot organise to be able to change Taiwanese currency here in Australia. What sort of signal does that give to people coming from Taiwan who want to do business here? What sort of signal does it give about our commitment as a nation to doing business with them and respecting them? In Taiwan, banks will happily exchange Australian dollars. They will exchange Australian dollars in the streets, in the hotels and in the banks. Yet people can go to any of the major banks in this country, in the heart of our capital city, and not be able to exchange their money. Nor will they be able to exchange it in any other large city in Australia because they just do not quote the currency at all.

  To add insult to injury, 35,000 Taiwanese visited Australia last year alone and that was at the commencement of direct air flights. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Office was kind enough today to provide me with an estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 ROC nationals—that is, Taiwanese people—are likely to be coming here every year by the year 2000. They will be a major source of tourist dollars for this country. But I would not want to be a Taiwanese tourist lobbing in Sydney, Cairns, Townsville, Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne or Darwin for that matter with a pocketful of his own currency and nothing else because he will not be able to change it. That is the sad message that our banks are giving to people who come from that country.

  I want to give the banks a sad message: that sort of attitude is not acceptable. If they are going to be fair dinkum, if we as a nation are going to be fair dinkum about respecting our near neighbours and doing business with them, it is about time they realised that they have to be willing to trade that currency. Some of the banks will say, `Well, there is not enough demand'. Of course it is difficult to assess demand if they tell people, `We are not going to change the currency, so don't bother asking'. That sort of answer is just not acceptable as far as I am concerned and certainly not acceptable as far as the people who arrive from Taiwan expecting to spend their money here are concerned either.

  Finally, after discussions with my bank, the NAB, it has kindly agreed to privately negotiate the notes for me but, whilst I am very grateful for that offer—and I will be taking it up—it does not solve the problem that our banks should be doing more. We have to respect our trading partners. If one can walk into any of the major banks in Canberra and change currency from the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia and a host of countries which in terms of the value of trade are smaller than or roughly equal to the value of our trade with Taiwan—I cannot even find the Solomon Islands listed in the statistics produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics—one should be able to change this currency. It is symptomatic of the attitude of some sectors in the business community to doing business that we have this problem.

  I hope that by this speech tonight I will be able to do my part in rectifying the situation. I call on the Australian Bankers Association and to banks individually to reappraise the situation. I am not one who bank bashes regularly but, unfortunately, on this occasion I have been left with no alternative.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Childs) —I call Senator Macdonald.

  Senator Collins—Oh, the good one!