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Wednesday, 24 June 2009
Page: 4204

Senator TROOD (5:34 PM) —I would like to make some remarks on this report of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Inquiry into Australia’s relationship with ASEAN. Madam Acting Deputy President Crossin, you will be aware, as many senators are, that ASEAN was formed in 1967 through the coming together of the countries of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. Since that time it has expanded to 10 members. In 1984 Brunei joined ASEAN and in the mid- to late-nineties four other countries became part of the ASEAN group. In that time it has become one of the most significant regional organisations certainly in East Asia but also around the world.

From the very beginning, Australia has had a very close relationship with ASEAN. I think it is true to say that it was the coalition government, not long after the organisation was formed in 1967, that began a dialogue with ASEAN and since that time it has continued to develop a very close relationship with not only the individual countries but the organisation itself. Throughout this period of time, 42 years, the Australian parliament has paid very close attention to the way in which this relationship has actually evolved. My recollection is that there have been several reports of the parliament—through the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade and the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade—which have looked into various aspects of the relationship between ASEAN and Australia.

This report from the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is yet another report on the progress of informing Australians about the nature of this relationship with ASEAN. It has become a relationship which is extremely diverse. As the report demonstrates, it deals with the trade between our two entities, security, aspects of human rights and political affairs between Australia and ASEAN. Over a period of 42 years, this has become a very rich and textured relationship. I think the report conveys the extent to which that texture and richness exists between our two entities.

The committee focused on some of the progress that has been made particularly in trade relations. ASEAN is now the sixth most important export destination for Australia in relation to goods and services, and Australia is the eighth most important source of imports for ASEAN. This is a very important trade relationship for Australia, and the evidence the committee received demonstrates that very convincingly. During the course of the hearings, ASEAN and Australia signed a free trade agreement. This was the first multicountry free trade agreement that Australia has signed, and it is additional to the complexity of the free trade arrangements that Australia already has with ASEAN countries. We have free trade agreements already with Singapore and with Thailand, and the free trade agreement with ASEAN builds on those existing bilateral free trade arrangements. The committee looked closely at this. It took evidence from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and from other organisations and businesses who are interested in the trade relationship between our countries and came to the view that this was a very important and very significant development in the trade relations between Australia and ASEAN. The conclusion by the committee was that the free trade agreement laid a platform for the further liberalisation of trade between Australia and this important group of countries.

When the ASEAN economic community comes into being in 2015, as it is expected to do, Australia will be in a position to take advantage of the opportunities which are presented within the context of that economic community. Concerns were raised in relation to trade and services. The committee noted that there is still quite a high level of protectionism among the ASEAN countries with regard to services, particularly in relation to legal services. The committee looks forward to the possibility that there will be some liberalisation of those legal services over time. The committee also noted that there is an opportunity, as a result of the free trade agreement, to develop the services through telecommunications. The advantage of that, as the committee saw it, is the opportunity to broaden the extent of the services relationship which already exists between Australia and the countries of ASEAN, expanding beyond the narrow focus of tourism and the narrow focus of education into a much more rich and diverse relationship. In that context, we also look forward to the possibility that there will be some liberalisation of professional services within the ASEAN grouping.

One aspect of the relationship that the committee paid close attention to was the regional security relationship. The regional security relationship has its foundation in the Five Power Defence Arrangements which were concluded between Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia during the period of the Cold War. That has been the foundation of our bilateral and multilateral defence relationships with the region over a very long period of time—over half a century, I think it is. This relationship has expanded and become much richer over a period of time, and there have been additions to the architecture of the defence relationship, including the formation of the ASEAN Regional Forum. The Shangri-La Dialogue, which takes place on an annual basis, was noted by the committee, and it forms part of the very important foundation of the security relationships we have with ASEAN.

We have very close bilateral relationships with many of the countries of ASEAN, and those relationships have expanded well beyond the foundations of the Five Power Defence Arrangements. They now cover things like insurgency, terrorism, transnational crime, biosecurity concerns, health and security, and the protection of radioactive materials. There is a process of military modernisation taking place within the region, and the committee noted that. The committee also noted that this was occurring in the context of the increasing economic development taking place among ASEAN countries, so the committee looked at that and saw no particular cause for concern as a result of that military modernisation.

The relationship will, I think, continue to expand in the security areas. There are some very notable successes. The progress that has been made with regard to counter-terrorism activities, particularly with Indonesia and the Philippines, is something of which the committee took note, and I think it looks forward to the further expansion of the security relationship across these very wide and numerous dimensions.

Finally, a very interesting development and one that we all regard as very important is the creation of an ASEAN human rights body, particularly in the context of the abuses of human rights that continue to take place in Burma. The committee saw the development of this ASEAN human rights body as a particularly significant sign of progress towards the protection of human rights and something that would encourage the countries of ASEAN to pay close attention to the progress that has been made with regard to human rights, particularly in Burma and particularly with regard to the incarceration of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose release from detention the committee has called for. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.