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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 29

Senator ELLISON (Minister for Justice and Customs) (11:27 AM) —I thank those senators who have contributed to the debate on the Customs Amendment (Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement Implementation) Bill 2004 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement Implementation) Bill 2004. What we are talking about here today is the Thailand-Australia free trade agreement and the benefits that will flow from such an agreement. The Centre for International Economics indicated that the benefits for both countries would be substantial. People should remember this as the background to this debate because, according to that centre, there will be a $2.4 billion advantage for Australia and a $6.8 billion benefit for Thailand. The benefit to Thailand comes as a result of the tariff structure in that country. When people talk about the social and human rights implications, they need to remember the benefits that this will bring to the Thai people. Most importantly for Australia, we have an economic benefit for this country.

A number of issues were raised during the second reading debate and I will address each in turn briefly. Social policy, human rights and development issues were raised by Senator Ridgeway and Senator Nettle. I place on record that Australia believes that free trade agreements are one of the best mechanisms to address these issues. Australia is very active in international organisations dealing with human rights. We are a world leader in relation to human rights and there is nothing better you can do for people than give them a good, strong economy so that you can have the structure to provide schooling, hospitals and a future for children in that community.

Senator Ridgeway mentioned that the investor-state provisions of this agreement give corporations unreasonable legal powers to challenge government law and policy. Investor-state provisions have been common law in all of the investment agreements entered into. They provide investors alternatives to relying on domestic courts where there is a question about procedures in the domestic courts. It is common to include these provisions when a developed state is concluding an agreement with a developing state. To date, there has not been a single action brought against Australia under any of those 19 investment agreements or under the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement. In practice, most investor-state issues are resolved by diplomatic means. That is an important point to remember in relation to the issue that Senator Ridgeway raised.

Senator Conroy dealt with the rules of origin, particularly as they relate to the textiles, clothing and footwear industry. The rules of origin for textiles, clothing and footwear are consistent with the rules of origin applied to imports from the least developed countries. Procedures are in place to prevent transshipments. To qualify for preferential rates of customs duty, Thai exporters will need to be registered by the Thai government. Furthermore, at the time of importation the Australian importer will need to possess a certificate of origin issued by the Thai government. A certificate of origin is required for each shipment, and we believe that this provides the necessary safeguards.

Senator Nettle has moved a second reading amendment on behalf the Greens in relation to the consideration of this agreement by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. Of course, the joint standing committee was considering this agreement and was close to finalising its consideration before the calling of the election. In the normal course of events, we provide 20 sitting days as a period of time in which the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties deals with these sorts of international instruments. I understand that that was exceeded in this case. There were many submissions to the committee which the government have taken note of. We are not disregarding those hearings at all, but of course there is a time imperative with this agreement. Both the Australian and Thai governments are committed to implementing this agreement and to seeing the commercial benefits flow to the Thai people and the Australian people as a result. Any delay to the implementation of this agreement will disappoint Australian business and the Thai government and raise questions about our commitment to the agreement. The joint DFAT and Austrade seminars on this agreement across Australia in July this year found widespread support for this agreement.

I refer again to the substantial economic benefits that will flow through to the people of both Thailand and Australia. Therefore, we believe that to delay this agreement would be detrimental to both Australia's and Thailand's interests. We certainly acknowledge the work that the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties has done, but we cannot delay in this instance, and I believe there is a precedent in relation to the Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement where we did the same thing. The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties has a very important role to play. We are not ignoring or disregarding that. We have taken note of the hearings and the submissions that have been made, but in this case it is in the national interest to proceed as quickly as possible to the implementation of this agreement.

Senator Conroy touched on some issues relating to labour and the environment. We certainly do not believe that free trade agreements are the best mechanism for international labour standards. We are active as a country in the International Labour Organisation, and the government believe that that is the best way to deal with those issues. Environmental issues are best dealt with by the WTO Committee on Trade and Environment, and we are actively pursuing those aspects through that forum. Free trade can deliver great benefits, and bringing environmental and labour considerations into the agreement could well delay and in fact frustrate any free trade agreement that would see those substantial economic benefits being delivered to both Australia and Thailand. The government do not support the amendments to the second reading, and we will be voting accordingly. I commend these bills to the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Knowles)—The question is that the second reading amendment moved by Senator Conroy be agreed to.

Question agreed to.

Senator NETTLE (New South Wales) (11.35 a.m.)—On behalf of the Australian Greens, I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:

Omit all words after “That”, substitute:

(a) further consideration of the bills be postponed and the bills be made an order of the day for the next day of sitting after the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties reports on the Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement; and

(b) senators who have spoken to the motion “That these bills be now read a second time” may speak again to that motion for up to 20 minutes each when debate on the bills resumes.

Question put.