Thursday, 16 August 2007
International Trade Integrity Bill 2007
It is a pleasure, as always, to speak in the Australian parliament as the federal member for Ryan, a beautiful part of the western suburbs of Brisbane, which I have the great honour of representing. I look forward to the support of my constituents in the years ahead. This bill goes to issues of trade, international business and Australia’s reputation. I think it is very important for members of the parliament to defend and promote our businesses and our nation on the world stage. Australian businesses are some of the most innovative and successful in the marketplace, and Australians in our very vibrant society can pride themselves on being citizens who promote integrity, not only in their personal lives but in the way they practise business free from corruption and bribery. This is especially true of our major international businesses which compete with the very best around the world.
In the 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index published by the not-for-profit group Transparency International, Australia ranked ninth, with a score of 8.7 out of 10—a very creditable ranking. It ranked ahead of virtually every comparable country: two ranks above the United Kingdom, at 11; five above Canada, at 14; eight above Japan, at 17; and 11 above the United States, at 20. The World Bank’s Governance Matters 2007 Worldwide Governance Indicators ranks Australia on the 95th percentile for control of corruption. It was for these reasons that the circumstances surrounding the manipulation of the oil for food program by AWB and the subsequent Cole inquiry were very disturbing to us in the parliament and in the country. The Howard government is to be congratulated on having the courage to commission the national inquiry following the Volcker report. Let us not forget that this was a royal commission, which had at its head a very distinguished Australian in Justice Cole. I think the International Trade Integrity Bill 2007 will reaffirm Australia’s commitment to a corruption-free international trade regime; indeed, a corruption-free international culture of business practices. We will continue our tough stance against foreign bribery and any contravention of United Nations regulations.
Importantly, this bill will protect the integrity of Australian exporters in the global marketplace. In June, the Minister for Trade launched the 2007 Trade statement, which reflected very well upon Australian exporters and Australian business men and women. The government is to be congratulated on its policies to promote the framework and climate in which Australian businesses can get on with what they do best: doing business here in Australia and around the world, particularly in our region. The Trade statement showed that Australia’s exports in 2006 were the highest on record, up some 16 per cent to $210 billion. That is more than double the 1996 export levels and a record in both value and volume terms. Nineteen of our of 25 exports reached record values. The success of our exporters and the growth in both numbers of exporters and profits since the Howard government came to office in 1996 is something we should be very proud of and continue to promote as much as we can. It is important to protect the integrity of those exporters who are competing with the very best and who are trying to do the right thing by operating in a corruption-free and trustworthy fashion, getting on with the business of putting their products and services out there with the best in the world.
The Ryan electorate has a very strong appreciation of the value of small business. It employs a lot of people in small- to medium-sized businesses. My constituents would be keen to know generally how Australia fairs in its exports of goods and services. I refer to the Trade statement, which was recently released by the Minister for Trade. It notes: coal, $23.3 billion; iron ore, $14.4 billion; personal travel, $11 billion; education services, a very important part of our economy—I have the University of Queensland in my electorate; students come from the region and other parts of the world to study at this very fine institution and deserve to have the very best quality of teaching and education—$10.7 billion; gold, $10.6 billion; crude petroleum, $6.7 billion; aluminium ores, $6.1 billion; aluminium, $5.9 billion; natural gas, $5.1 billion; beef, $4.9 billion; and professional business services, $4.5 billion. That is just a snapshot for the people of Ryan of some of the very significant dollars involved in our export industries.
It is very important to the Ryan electorate that businesses can flourish and the reason for this, of course, is that it contributes to standards of living, jobs and employment and strengths of our communities. If businesses are unable to practise, if they are unable to trade and engage in services with other businesses and consumers, at the end of the day that affects the livelihoods of everyday Australians. I think everyone understands how the Australian economy impacts upon their lives. We know that interest rates affect mortgage payments. We know that, as unemployment queues get longer, it becomes more and more difficult to get a job. We know that wages are critical to standards of living. But if we ask people about the nature of international trade, they might think it is something a little abstract. However, it is very important and it is critical for us to continue to promote trade in our overall economic architecture.
Australia’s success as an international trading nation is a very important aspect of our economy. One in five Australian jobs depends directly on exports. Interestingly, in the Ryan electorate in the western suburbs of Brisbane, the lives of almost 13,000 people are directly affected by the types of businesses for whom they work, because those businesses export to the region and to the world. It is very important for me to promote those businesses and to give them every opportunity of competing with other businesses interstate and in the region. But, of course, jobs also come from indirect trade. When we are buying foreign products, we must remember that that also gives Australians jobs. We do not want to get into a situation where the signal we communicate to the world is, ‘We will export our products and you can’t bring your products into Australia.’ No country and no economy would accept only a one-way flow of goods and services, such that Australian consumers cannot purchase Australian T-shirts made in China, such as the ‘Kevin 07’ T-shirts, which I understand were not Australian made. That was very disappointing. Nevertheless, it is a free market and a free economy, and no doubt those Australians who support the opposition leader will purchase them. But I remind them that those T-shirts were not made in Australia. And I am happy to continue to promote the fact in the Ryan electorate that those Rudd T-shirts were not made by Australian hands on the Australian mainland or in Tasmania. But that is for the record. I think all Australians are aware of that.
Trade is not just about goods such as T-shirts made in China; it also involves services. Services comprise some 80 per cent of the Australian economy, and we have to do all we can to promote service opportunities in the business world in Asia. I think that is an area where we can really make a lot of mileage for Australians because Asia is a growing region. With the technical skills and experience of our services sector, particularly the sheer talent and ability of our financial services sector, we stand to benefit to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. International trade has always been tied with Australia’s overall economic success.
In my presentation in the House the other day, I talked about the benefits of trade to Australia, starting back in the gold rush days. In the 1860s, the gold rush encouraged large-scale immigration and created a lot of wealth from gold exports. They made Australia a rich land at the time. Unfortunately, as we know, protectionist policies came into play in the last century which affected not only our economy but also the world’s economy. We do not want to return to protectionism. We certainly do not want to see the world turn inwards in the trade arena. We will do all we can in this country to ensure that Australian businesses can compete in a corruption-free and bribery-free type of international economic landscape.
Given how important international trade is to Australia, this bill is in response to the recommendations of the Cole report, which was tabled in the parliament on 27 November last year. It will amend the Charter of the United Nations Act 1945 to create a new offence for people or corporations who engage in conduct that contravenes a UN sanction enforced in Australia or recklessly provides false or misleading information in connection with the administration of a UN sanction. The bill will also introduce a strict liability for corporations which engage in conduct that contravenes a UN sanction enforced in Australia, including in relation to UN counterterrorism financing sanctions.
In addition, the bill will amend the Customs Act 1901 to introduce new criminal offences for importing or exporting goods sanctioned by the UN without valid permission and for providing information that is false or misleading or omitting information in an application for permission to import or export UN sanctioned goods. Also very important is the provision in the bill to amend the Criminal Code Act 1995 to ensure the defence under section 70 to a charge of bribing a foreign public official is only available where the advantage paid to a foreign official is expressly permitted or required by law, regardless of the results of payment or the alleged necessity of payment.
This is an important bill. It reflects the Howard government’s very strong commitment to supporting Australian businesses large and small. It reflects a very strong commitment to providing in our country a climate and legislative framework that will enable Australian businesspeople who are competing with foreigners to know that they have the full support of the national parliament, that they will be protected and that there is a clear signal that corruption and inappropriate legal business practices will not be tolerated at all.
We all know that the Leader of the Opposition made a name for himself in the community and within his own party over his embrace of this issue during the Cole inquiry. His attacks on the integrity and character of the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Foreign Affairs were shameful. It was shameful to smear people’s reputations in the fashion that he did. I know that this is politics and we are in a robust democracy, but I think there should be a line drawn in the sand between policy attacks and character assassination of the worst kind upon individuals. The attacks on Mr Howard, Mr Vaile and Mr Downer were just awful. They carried themselves with great dignity in the face of intense smearing on the part of the Leader of the Opposition. I am very disappointed that someone would seek to do that in the battle for ideas in this country and in the battle for policy annunciation.
In any event, that seems to happen from the opposition. But, through all of this, the Howard government was resolute and it did the right thing. It initiated the Cole inquiry and a full investigation into the AWB. And now, in the wake of the inquiry’s findings, the damage done by the AWB’s conduct has been fully revealed. Let us hope that some good comes from that for Australian businesses. Let us hope that we are stronger legislatively for it and stronger in a cultural sense so that there is a strong appreciation in the Australian economy that our businesses must conduct themselves with propriety and also with honour in their dealings. At the end of the day, in the overwhelming number of cases, businesses that do that would stand to profit from that—because when you try to play too many games in business, and indeed in politics, you will probably get caught out.
My parents ran a small business; they had a little corner store. From running a small business they were able to put three children through university. My brother is a neurosurgeon, my sister is about to graduate from medicine and I have the great honour of representing the Ryan electorate in the western suburbs of Brisbane. Being in politics, I am perhaps the black sheep. My brother is a neurosurgeon saving lives in Brisbane at the Royal Brisbane Hospital. I see that my senior colleague from Queensland, the member for Fairfax, is in the chair. As Chair of the Standing Committee on Health and Ageing he knows how important doctors are—especially in Queensland. I should make the observation that doctors also run businesses, and they are also important. I read an interesting piece in the BRW recently which said medical tourism to this country could generate some $600 billion for our economy. What a massive amount of money! It would increase the standard of living for all of us.
I wanted to make the point that we want small- and medium-sized businesses to grow and make profits so that they can contribute more to their communities and Australian society at large. We want to see them flourish. We also want to see our big companies like BHP and Rio Tinto who compete with the giants of global business do very well. So this is an important bill. It promotes international trade in Australia in a cultural sense. It promotes the international standing of our companies, I think. I very much congratulate the government on this bill because, as someone who is very passionate about promoting Australian businesses, I think it is critical.
In the minutes I have left, I would like to draw to the House’s attention an article in the Wall Street Journal about Australia’s standing as a country that is open and supports economic liberty. Interestingly, Hong Kong ranks No.1, Singapore ranks No. 2, Australia ranks No. 3, the US ranks No. 4, New Zealand ranks No 5, the UK ranks No. 6, Ireland ranks No. 7, Luxembourg ranks No. 8, Switzerland ranks No. 9 and Canada ranks No. 10. For those who might be interested in international business, let me count back from the other end of the table. The last country on this list of 157 is North Korea. They are ahead of Cuba, Libya, Zimbabwe, Burma, Turkmenistan, the Republic of Congo, Iran, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Burundi, Belarus and Venezuela. No disrespect to those countries, but I believe this shows that the countries and economies that are open and believe in giving their people opportunities to maximise their talents and engage with each other are the countries that flourish and prosper and end up with unemployment figures like Australia’s—which, at 4.3 per cent, is the lowest in decades and, at the end of the day, makes a difference to the lives of every Australian. I warmly commend this very important bill to the parliament.