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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 4203

Senator FARRELL (5:33 PM) —On behalf of the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Senator Forshaw, I present the report of the committee Inquiry into Australia’s relationship with ASEAN. I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I seek leave to incorporate a tabling statement in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The statement read as follows—

On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I wish to table the Committee’s report: Australia’s relationship with ASEAN.

ASEAN has become an important trading partner for Australia. ASEAN is now the sixth most important export destination for Australian goods and services, and Australia is the eighth most important source of imports for ASEAN. This relationship has been recognized by the recent signing of the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand free-trade agreement.

The countries of ASEAN are also of a strategic importance to Australia. Political stability in the region and good international relations with ASEAN countries are therefore integral to Australia’s security and prosperity.

Over the years ASEAN has expanded its engagement with the region through its dialogue partners, the creation of the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the East Asia Summit. This trend culminated in the 2003 Bali Concord II and the 2008 ASEAN Charter which formalised ASEAN as a legal entity and inter-government organisation.

Australia’s relationship with ASEAN is multifaceted and operates on different levels. The report discusses the nature of those interactions which occur at government and non-government level and with ASEAN as a discrete entity or with individual member countries. Often that relationship proceeds through different avenues and levels simultaneously.

In reviewing the outcomes of Australia’s current FTAs with Singapore and Thailand, the Committee has concluded that the policy of applying a greater focus on tariff barriers in trade negotiations, leaving a ‘tail’ of negotiation for non-tariff barriers, has not always appeared to work to Australia’s immediate advantage.

Better information about the cost of non-tariff barriers would greatly assist Australia’s trade negotiators. To this end the Committee has recommended that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade develop a single method of costing non-tariff barriers, to assist Australian FTA negotiators to identify, evaluate and target barriers to trade. As well, there should be annual reports to the Parliament on the impacts of individual trade agreements.

The Committee is convinced that telecommunications should be an important component of FTAs being negotiated with other countries and has recommended that DFAT ensure future FTAs contain effective telecommunications chapters.

As well, the recognition of professional qualifications is an important aspect of Australia’s ability to trade with ASEAN member countries. The more widely Australian professional qualifications are recognised, the better Australia’s position to cater to emergent demand in the region. The Committee has therefore made recommendations concerning the recognition of professional qualifications and that FTAs should include a professional services working group to assist in creating professional linkages, including mutual recognition agreements.

The Committee has reviewed various aspects of Australia’s cooperation with ASEAN in the security arena including: the defence relationship; combating insurgency, terrorism and transnational crime; enhancing biosecurity and health; and securing radioactive materials.

The Committee recognises the wide ranging and comprehensive contribution of various Australian agencies to the security of the ASEAN region. The security status is bound to fluctuate, but the Committee is confident that the level of co-operation will ensure long-term success.

The Committee welcomes the development of the ASEAN Charter and the creation of an ASEAN human rights body. The new body will raise the profile of human rights and will create an opportunity to bring human rights issues before ASEAN Ministers.

In addition, the Committee believes there is an opportunity for Australia to progress human rights through its relationship with the Asian Development Bank by using its influence to ensure that adherence to core labour standards become a precondition for loans from that bank.

Regarding human rights issues, Mr President, I note that the Committee’s Human Rights Sub-Committee is currently reviewing international and regional human rights mechanisms to identify possible models that may be suitable for the Asia-Pacific region.

The Committee is satisfied with the provision of aid to Burma, and involvement of the AFP with the Burmese police force. Nevertheless, there needs to be constant awareness of the possibility that the Burmese authorities will misuse the Australian assistance provided, and a willingness to withdraw this assistance should such evidence come to light.

The continuing detention of the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi continues to be of concern. The Committee endorses the recent statement on the issue by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and calls for Aung San Suu Kyi’s immediate and unconditional release.

Turning to the challenges created by climate change, the Committee believes there are significant opportunities for Australia to offer leadership and technical assistance to ASEAN member countries. In the Committee’s view, Australia’s present climate change engagements in the region, both government and non-government, are a good basis for meeting these challenges. They contribute to positive relationships in the region and, by enhancing capacity within ASEAN member states, build a foundation upon which future collaborations can occur.

Arising from its review of human rights issues and environment issues, the Committee considers that human rights including core labour standards and the environment should be pursued in future FTAs. Australia should also take the opportunity to introduce such issues (if they are not already included) when current FTAs are reviewed.

In closing, Mr President, I would like to thank all those who provided submissions and gave evidence at the public hearings. Finally, I thank my colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee, and the secretariat.

Mr President, I commend the report to the Senate.