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Friday, 31 May 1996
Page: 1570

Senator SCHACHT(3.35 p.m.) —On behalf of the opposition, I rise to indicate that we will not be opposing the Customs Tariff (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 1996. This is another one of those bills that the previous government, of which I was a part, had already prepared and submitted. I must say that, if the new government had not had in the pipeline such a list of bills which already had been prepared and submitted by us, its legislative program for this session would have been extremely brief indeed.

Nevertheless, we support this bill. It carries through a period for the classification of changes for the harmonisation of commodity descriptions and coding systems of the World Customs Organisation. This is in connection with the process of moving to the new arrangements under the World Trade Organisation on customs descriptions for all those commodities.

I have risen to speak because the second reading speech, which refers to the provisions of the Customs Tariff Act, points out that these instruments include approximately 22,000 tariff concession orders and commercial tariff concession orders, 800 tariff concession order applications, 1,000 determinations in relation to the passage of the motor vehicle plan and 300 by-laws. This is very much—as we would say in the Australian vernacular—the `guts' of the tariff system and its operation by the Australian Customs Service.

The point I raise is that, at the time this very important bill is going through as part of the international process, we are also seeing announcements by the new government of substantial reductions in the resources avail able to Customs. The new government, on coming to office, announced that it would cut $50 million off the customs department—and overwhelmingly in the staffing area.

Already it has been publicly acknowledged that 300 or 400 jobs in Customs will go. I notice that, disproportionately, many of them will go from the outlying states. My own state of South Australia, for example, will be losing 16 per cent of its Customs staff; Tasmania will be losing over 40 per cent. This is from a new government that said it would be looking after the interests of rural and regional Australia. However, the biggest cuts are falling in the smallest states.

But also, in carrying out these cuts, it mentions in the public document circulated by Customs itself that this would have an impact on the information technology and computer programming area of Customs. The position on which I would ask the minister whether he can give any information is: will the cutbacks that are taking place in Customs affect the processing operations of Customs itself to handle all the new classifications, the new processes that have been outlined in this bill?

It would be tragic indeed if, after achieving these new harmonisation rules across the world, through the World Customs Organisation and the World Trade Organisation, Australian Customs was not able to make full use and provide that information to Australian industry. Looking at those numbers I read out as having been acknowledged in the second reading speech, tariff concession orders alone amount to some 22,000. I point out that the new government has changed its election campaign decision to abolish tariff concession orders. It will continue the tariff concession order system but operate it at three per cent rather than five per cent and also put in a whole new level of items to be described as `consumer items'.

I have a question on the Notice Paper asking for the full list of `consumer items' that will now get a three per cent tariff tax. In the past they did not; they received a tariff concession order. But they will now get an extra three per cent tax. There is no doubt that the cost to Customs to be able to run this new tariff concession system properly at three per cent, with all the `consumer items' being added to it, will be extra resources, particularly in the area of computer systems and information technology.

I want to raise that point again with the minister. Can he assure us that the $50 million reduction to resources, staff and information technology will not make it more difficult for Customs to operate in this area? This is a very important issue for Australian industry.

It has often been said to us in the past that the coalition, whether in government or opposition, is more sympathetic to, and understanding of, the business community. We in the Australian Labor Party have always refuted that. We have said that, on a practical basis, we have a better understanding of the needs of industry.

The new government's announcements about the cutbacks to Customs indicate to us that they do not understand the interests of business and industry. If we are going to be an internationally competitive economy, exporting to and importing from the world marketplace and, in particular, the Asia-Pacific region, we need a Customs Service that is able to efficiently and quickly provide to industry by information technology what the tariff levels are. It cannot operate by the old system where Customs brokers lodged, in a very complicated way, documents in post boxes at every Customs office around Australia. It has to be done electronically.

Australian Customs Service was leading the world in the introduction of information technology. For example, last year Customs was given great credit—it should be given to them very strongly—for putting on CD-ROM information about the tariff levels on every item from every APEC country. No matter where you were in an APEC economy, for a small cost you could obtain that CD-ROM and find out what the tariff level was for an item in Chile, the United States of America, Mexico, Thailand or Hong Kong. This was a very efficient way of providing information to industry right across APEC and removing some of the barriers that inhibit the growth of trade.

Customs in Australia has to be given great credit for being the leader, out of all the APEC countries, of this process over recent years. It is one of the leaders in the World Customs Organisation. It is very strange that one of the government's first actions was to reduce the ability of Customs to provide that service to Australian industry. The cutbacks to Customs mean that it may not be able to effectively achieve for industry the harmonisation of information on all these items under the new process that has been agreed to. I hope that I am wrong, but I suspect that I am not. That is my warning to the government. I hope that they can take that on board. I would certainly appreciate the minister responding to this and giving us some information.