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Tuesday, 15 September 2015
Page: 6778

Senator CAROL BROWN (Tasmania) (12:32): I am pleased to inform the Senate that Labor supports the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank Bill 2015, and we will facilitate its passage through the Senate today. We support this bill because this bill facilitates Australia joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Labor has said consistently that Australia should join this bank. We were saying this consistently way before the government. While the cabinet was in meltdown—while the foreign minister, Ms Bishop, was arguing with the Treasurer, Mr Hockey, and while the former Prime Minister, Mr Abbott, was dithering about whether to join this bank—the opposition was saying very clearly that it was an easy decision: Australia must join. Australia should join this bank because it is the right thing to do. Australia should join this bank because China has shown leadership in setting up this bank and the rest of the world should join.

But the government dithered; the government could not make its mind up. The foreign minister said we should not join for reasons known only to herself. The Treasurer, to give him credit, knew that we should join, but he could not carry the day in cabinet. On the other hand the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten; the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and our shadow minister for foreign affairs, Ms Plibersek; and our shadow Treasurer, Mr Bowen, were of one mind immediately—this was an easy decision. This is a great opportunity for Australia. It is a good opportunity for the world to come together to deal with the infrastructure gap in Asia and to work together on the development of Asia. But, no, while the Labor Party was lending bipartisan support to this from last October the government could not make up its mind.

As I have said, Labor is supporting this bill and is facilitating its speedy passage through the Senate today. I note that we have already agreed to exempt this bill from the cut-off order to enable it to be considered in this sitting week. Further, we have facilitated debate immediately following the presentation of the report of the Senate Economics Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill. This report was completed following a public hearing with officials from Treasury and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade just last night. Senators will be forgiven if they have missed this hearing, but I assure everyone that it did occur. Senator Wong, the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, was present as was Senator Edwards and Senator Dastyari.

The Senate Economics Legislation Committee inquiry received two submissions, one from Treasury and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and one from Stephen Howes and Robin Davies from the Development Policy Centre at the Australian National University. The public hearing provided an opportunity for senators to seek clarification on a number of matters from the government. These issues included matters relating to our membership; the governance of the bank and concerns raised by Australia; the Australian shareholding; accountability; the immunities and privileges that extend, as set out in section 8 of this bill; operational policies; and the ratification process. Questions remain about a number of these matters, particularly around some of the rhetoric that has been used in public debate on the bank by government ministers. Other issues requiring further amplification relate to the capital provided to the bank, how the board of directors will operate, Australia's constituency and whether any funds can be included as official development assistance in the future—these are all matters to watch.

In light of Labor's cooperative approach to this bill, I do seek an undertaking from the minister that demonstrates a similarly cooperative approach from the government. At the hearing last night, a number of matters were taken on notice. Whilst it was disappointing that questions could not be answered, including many simple questions seeking clarification of comments by, for example, the Minister for Trade and Investment that were already on the public record we understand that sometimes it is not always possible for the officials at the table to answer questions where they require an explanation from the minister concerned. The opposition seeks an undertaking from the minister, which I hope he will be able to give in his concluding remarks, that answers to questions taken on notice at last night's hearing will be provided in a fulsome and timely way.

The opposition could have opposed the exemption of this bill from the cut-off and sought to delay consideration of this bill until the Senate Economics Legislation Committee report had been fully considered and answers to questions on notice received, but that is not the approach we are taking. We support this bill and Australia's involvement in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and want us to be able to take up our seat at the table as soon as possible.

I look forward to the minister being able to give a commitment to the Senate, today, that this additional material will be provided in accordance with the deadline set by the committee. Then all senators and the Australian people will be able to fully understand the nature of Australia's participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the attitude of the government to some of the issues that have been raised by its own ministers. Labor has proceeded in good faith in its approach to this bill and expects the same courtesy from the government.

It was interesting to see, in the second reading speech in the other place, the Treasurer boast: 'On 29 June this year I gave effect to the government's commitment to join the AIIB by being the first person in the world to sign the bank's Articles of Agreement in the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing. My signature was followed by those representatives of 49 other countries.'

He was boasting that Australia was first. Mr Hockey was the first to sign because Australia comes first alphabetically. That is why his signature was first. It is nothing for him to boast about. We could have been one of the first countries to join the bank when China invited the rest of the world to join. We could have been a leader. Instead, under this government, we are followers. We had to wait for other countries to join—then we decided to join. We joined after the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Korea, Germany, France, Italy, India and Singapore. All of these countries showed leadership.

Australia could have been in at the ground floor. It could have been in, working with these other countries, setting the bank up. But, no, we had to wait and see what other countries, like the United Kingdom, did. I thought we had stopped letting the United Kingdom make Australian foreign-policy decisions about 70 years ago. We know this government is dysfunctional but its dysfunction impacts on policy. Here, we have cabinet dysfunction impacting on policy and Australia missing a golden opportunity to come in at the ground floor and join this very important bank.

The Australian Infrastructure Investment Bank will fulfil a very important role. There is a significant gap in infrastructure around the Asian region. Around $8 trillion over the next decade is the widely agreed figure, which is a figure the opposition agrees with. The bank represents an opportunity for countries of the world to come together and pool funds and to provide authorised capital so that the bank can facilitate infrastructure investment. We will have a very substantial shareholding of about US$3.7 billion and I note that the second-biggest shareholding in the bank is India, about US$8.3 billion and a share of 7½ per cent. Our shareholding is substantial, as is appropriate. This is not a matter that will be reflected in budget figures, but it is an appropriate shareholding for us to have a very significant economy in the Asia-Pacific region.

We certainly support Australia's involvement and will facilitate, in every sense possible, Australia being as involved as possible, because we should be. But we should have shown much greater leadership than we did. We should have shown the leadership of a nation that understands the opportunities of Asia. There has been a lot said about China, in recent weeks, in this parliament and in public debate. There has been a lot of lecturing going on from those opposite about China and how we need to work better with China.

We are not going to take any lectures from a government that for months got this strategic decision on China so wrong. It is a government that could not make a simple decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. They have the gall to come in here, the Senate, and the other place and lecture the Labor Party about how to do business with China when you have the Leader of the Opposition, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Treasurer, on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, consistently saying—since last October—this is a no-brainer; this is an easy decision. If Labor were in government we would have signed up straightaway, because it is an opportunity to take. Those opposite need to understand the strategic error they have made—in waiting for other countries to show leadership and sending a signal to China that we do not care about their development.

The position of the opposition is that we should be joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That is the position we adopted last October and the one to which the government were dragged kicking and screaming. The government showed a lack of interest and foresight in not being able to make the decision to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That is the sort of economic leadership we are seeing from this government.

China did not need to create this multilateral institution. China could have said, 'We are developing a bank and we are going to invest in ourselves.' But China made the decision to work in partnership with the rest of the world and invite other nations—not just Asian nations but nations from the rest of the world, such as the United Kingdom, France and others—into the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That is a good thing. Countries from the rest of the world have noted and supported this development. Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, France, Germany, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are joining this particular bank, as they should. We welcome their participation. But it would have been a whole lot better if this government had shown more leadership and realised the opportunities available, from joining the bank, rather than dithering for months and missing the opportunity to invest in infrastructure in the Asia region.

We all know about the opportunities of living on the edge of the world's fastest-growing region. We know about the burgeoning middle-class in Asia. We know about the increased demand for protein and for Australia's agricultural goods, in particular. We know about the opportunities in services, financial services and others, being exported to Asia. We know we have the skills and the capacity, in Australia, to export so many more services. Australia's financial services are highly respected and highly developed. The fourth-largest pool of funds under management in the world is in Australia, but we do not manage the funds of Asia.

Around five per cent of funds under management in Australia come from overseas. We could be doing so much better. Australia could be the financial services hub, but it would take complete engagement with the Asian economy to be so. It is not possible to reach that sort of engagement when the cabinet cannot even decide to join an important multilateral institution such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This government is so dysfunctional that it spent months arguing about whether to take up a golden opportunity to participate in a new multilateral institution.

This is not to say that other institutions, such as the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank, are not worthy of continued engagement. They have different tasks at hand, as does the International Monetary Fund. They have different tasks to conduct. But the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank fills a gap—it fills a hole. It is right and proper that the fastest-growing region in the world has its own institution devoted to infrastructure investment. It is right and proper that we, such an important economy in the Asia-Pacific region, be involved and a member.

So of course the Labor Party will give wholehearted support to this bill, as we did in the other place, but we take the opportunity to point out that these are opportunities presented to Australia last year which the government was dragged, kicking and screaming, to embrace. We are not going to have the Treasurer boasting that he was the first person in the world to sign the articles of agreement, although Labor does recognise that he was not allowed to pursue and progress signing up to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank due to the conflicting attitudes of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the former Prime Minister. The Treasurer was not able to deliver what he knew was in our best interest.

We have heard a lot of words about how we need to have better conditions and better governance. That is just an excuse—and a dishonest one, at that—for months of inaction. The government have not progressed changes to the governance. To suggest otherwise is just wrong. What they have done is buy time, and they have been shown to be lacking in leadership. They have allowed other countries with much less to do with Asia than us to join before us. The United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy all signed up before Australia. They all indicated their support before Australia. When these institutions are being developed, the early days are very important. People who are members early are able to influence the development of the institution. Australia lost that opportunity. We lost that opportunity on the watch of the Treasurer. It was not his fault but the fault of his Prime Minister, the foreign affairs minister and the rest of the cabinet, who showed a singular lack of leadership on this matter. So let us not have any lectures from members opposite in their remarks which will follow about Asia and China and the importance of the Chinese economic relationship, because they have completely mismanaged this matter. They missed the opportunity for us to join this bank as an early adopter. The government completely got it wrong.