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Wednesday, 8 December 1993
Page: 4204


Senator FERGUSON (7.44 p.m.) —I rarely speak on an adjournment debate, and I will be very brief tonight. Honourable senators may recall that yesterday I raised the issue of a South Australian company which had suffered a considerable loss because of the loss of a consultancy in Malaysia resulting from the current situation that has developed between the two countries. We heard the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Senator Gareth Evans) both yesterday and today in his answer talk about the hazards that face companies which wish to operate overseas.

  I guess that most companies can anticipate many of the hazards that may be placed in their way. One of the hazards that they cannot anticipate is the intrusion of an intemperate remark by a Prime Minister, which has put a lot of their overseas contracts in jeopardy. Having raised that issue yesterday with regard to SEAS Sapfor, I received a letter from another South Australian company which has written to the Prime Minister (Mr Keating), and I think it highlights the situation of many small businesses in Australia that have been encouraged by this government to become involved in trade with South-East Asia and have spent a lot of time trying to develop these contracts and these export markets. Now they have found that, within a very short period, all of their hard work has come undone through an intemperate remark.

  I just want to read into the record this one letter that I received today, because I think it says it all and I think it should be on the record. This letter is from the South Australian Horticultural Export Co. Pty Ltd, and it is addressed to the Prime Minister, Mr Paul Keating. It says:

Dear Sir,

Following a telephone call from Kuala Lumpur today I am writing this letter to you, asking you, no, begging you to formally apologise to Dr Mahathir Mohamad for your recent remarks that he was "recalcitrant" for refusing to attend the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation conference in Seattle last month.

Having worked extremely hard to build up a market in Malaysia for our produce, this year we exported apples to the value of $1.7m which is half our total apple exports this season. We certainly do NOT want to lose this market.

Whilst this may seem a small amount to you, to us it has been extremely important and beneficial to our company, the SA Horticultural Export Company Pty. Ltd, also very beneficial to the growers in South Australia and the South Australian economy.

You and your government have been continually telling us to make export happen which will in turn help your balance of payment decrease, and we have got off our butts, gone overseas, made contacts with buyers overseas and sold produce and built up a good sound trade with markets throughout South East Asia and now with one word from you, the head of our country, these markets will come to a sudden stop.

I spoke to our agent in Kuala Lumpur today as we have been very worried by this whole incident. We have eight sea containers of apples about to reach Port Kelang today, and our agent tells me that he could not take them into Malaysia now as the buyers in the market place have put a boycott on all produce from Australia!

So what happens now to those containers of apples? That is 4,000 cartons of beautiful South Australian apples!

We have been through a really tough time in business made tough because of your outrageously high interest rates several years back, now when we finally thought we had it sorted out and we are on the way back, a really bright light ahead of us due to the growth export markets in Malaysia, YOU stuff it all up for us with one word.

I returned from Malaysia just two weeks ago and met with buyers and agents there and they were extremely happy with the product that we have been sending to Malaysia and, in fact, were talking of increasing the volume to over $3m for next year. This may not sound a lot to you, but to the growers in this state it means expansion, money in their pockets, a return for their many hours of hard work and a little recognition for the gamble they take in planting new orchards.

We had a small problem in Kuching, the only way we could fix it was to go there and talk to the buyer. We did this and now there is no problem, in fact, he increased his commitment to us for next year.

The only way to fix the problem you have created with the Malays is to do the same as we did. Pick up your phone and talk to the person, or better still go and see him and apologise.

You are our Prime Minister, for goodness sake!

You are supposed to set the example for all of us to follow!

YOU are the only one that can fix this problem, and I implore you to do so before it is too late. Unfortunately, a lot of damage has already been done to the "Australian image" in Malaysia and it will take a long time for them to forget your comments, but PLEASE do something before this gets out of hand completely!

For the benefit of all people who do business with Malaysia, PLEASE, PLEASE APOLOGISE!!!!!

Yours Faithfully,

Bruce Plummer.

He is one of the representatives of that company. Some people have suggested that the appropriate thing to do is to apologise. Only tonight, as many honourable senators did, I heard televised interviews with the Malaysians. One Malaysian made the most appropriate comment, that the Prime Minister would not lose face if he said, `I meant no offence but if my comments offended you then I am sorry'.