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Monday, 27 September 1993
Page: 1174


Senator SPINDLER (4.51 p.m.) —Listening to the last two speakers, I wonder to what extent they are familiar with the current GATT round of negotiations. I wonder whether they are aware of exactly what that round provides. I wonder whether they know that it is aimed at a continuing reduction of any type of support for manufacturing and other industries in any country with the aim of bringing about a global free trade situation. I will return to that in a moment.

  My colleague Senator Coulter has placed before the Senate in considerable detail the Australian Democrats' concerns about how GATT is structured and how it works to depress environmental safeguards, wage levels, working conditions and quality of life to the lowest global common denominator. It will be useful to extract from this detail some general principles which indicate this government's policies on world trade.

  These concerns can perhaps be best illustrated by juxtaposing two items of information. First, evidence was given to my inquiry into tariffs and industry development that Chinese textile industry workers were paid a wage of $20 for a 48-hour week with no work safety provisions and no environmental safeguards. The second item is Professor Garnaut's quite ludicrous—in view of that fact—proposal some months ago that we should establish a free trade zone with China; a proposal which was immediately and warmly welcomed by Prime Minister Keating.

  Clearly, it is important to remove some of the outrageous trade barriers which currently exist in the world. I refer particularly to the ones that the United States, France, Germany and, to some extent, Canada have erected against Australian agricultural produce. In the main, these are in the form of subsidies which allow their farmers—for instance, through the United States export enhancement program—to push Australian farmers out of our traditional markets. This distortion has gone so far that some American farmers are deriving the bulk of their income from these subsidies. As an example, in Illinois in 1991 farmers derived more than 90 per cent of their income from subsidies while hundreds and thousands of Australian farmers were—and they still are—going to the wall.

  We need to be careful, though, that we do not achieve reforms at the expense of our workers, our living standards, our environment, our industries and even, in the long term, our farmers. In the future when all barriers are removed and all countries are competing on an absolutely free trade basis, our farmers might be forced to farm the land in such a way that they will destroy it—and we have become conscious of that in recent years. They may fall, once again, below subsistence level, this time not due to the subsidies offered by other countries but because there are absolutely no limits and protections anywhere in the world in respect of maintaining standards either for our farmers or for anyone else.

  If the attempt in the current Uruguay Round to remove these distortions succeeds—and the Democrats support this—it will be an extremely good result, for now, for Australia's primary producers. However, it does not follow that the government is entitled, as a necessary consequence of removing such extreme distortions in one particular industry, to continue its suicidal strategy to open up Australia's domestic market to cheap imports, many of which are produced at a cost which is one twenty-fifth of that which Australian manufacturers face, right across-the-board.

  In a global sense, the Australian government is becoming a party to an agreement which will ensure that goods will continue to be produced in slave labour conditions and with total disregard of the environmental standards which we take for granted. The consequence is twofold: the often subhuman conditions under which these goods are produced will be perpetuated; and bankruptcies and unemployment will continue to rise in Australia. Once again, it needs to be put on record that Australia needs an industry by industry assessment and a sectoral, positive industry and trade policy which integrates economic and social objectives and maximises the comparative advantages that a particular Australian industry has.

  The GATT agreement, as it stands, clearly does not meet these requirements. Contravention of a country's health standards is the only ground currently admissible under GATT for the refusal of entry to goods into that country and, occasionally, even this may be circumvented. Clearly, if we are to develop an industry strategy which takes into account Australia's wage levels, working conditions, work safety standards and environmental safeguards, and which lifts global standards to at least these levels instead of the other way around, we must introduce a degree of flexibility into GATT. In particular, we must admit factors and circumstances which were part of the production process in assessing how a particular product could be treated under GATT rather than just the condition or properties of the finished product.

  In direct questions to the minister, in the departmental briefing he courteously provided and in any other government statements, there is no trace, no indication, that the minister, his predecessors or any official acting on behalf of the Australian government have, at any stage, sought to introduce any measures or modifications to GATT to minimise the very real dangers of the present model. Nor has there been any consultation with the community or any public assessment of the consequences if Australia signs this particular GATT agreement. (Time expired)