House debates

Wednesday, 22 August 2018


Customs Amendment (Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus Implementation) Bill 2018, Customs Tariff Amendment (Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus Implementation) Bill 2018; Second Reading

4:35 pm

Photo of Richard MarlesRichard Marles (Corio, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Defence) Share this | Hansard source

I rise to speak in favour of the Customs Amendment (Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus Implementation) Bill 2018 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus Implementation) Bill 2018. In speaking on both bills, I do so as they are a step—it is probably fair enough to say a relatively small step but a step nevertheless—in a process of putting in place in this country and within the region the PACER Plus agreements, which have traversed the efforts of a number of governments in this country. We already have a largely open economy, but this is an important step forward.

The PACER Plus agreement is a trade agreement. It is therefore reciprocal in nature. It's a multilateral agreement which seeks to create a free trading zone within the Pacific. In that sense, what is happening now is not complete, because, as the member for Fremantle noted, it is not an agreement which covers, at this stage, Papua New Guinea and Fiji, which would be the two largest economies within the Pacific other than, of course, New Zealand and Australia. It is not principally an agreement which is about the Australian economy. No government has engaged in the PACER Plus negotiations as an exercise in trying to fundamentally expand Australian markets.

To put that into context, what free trade agreements we seek to negotiate as a country occur within a context of priorities around our own economic development, which is why you see trade agreements done with either large countries, large economies or countries where there is the opportunity for significant trade growth in respect of Australian exports. You would never say that in respect of the Pacific, because that's not really been the motivation for governments of either persuasion to pursue PACER Plus. Indeed, if this were only seen through the light of what it could do for the Australian economy, it would never meet the priorities test in the list of countries or regions that we would seek to do a free trade agreement with.

PACER Plus is an exercise of regional leadership in respect of regional development. Ultimately, PACER Plus is about playing a part in the development of the Pacific, and that is evidenced by the 'plus' component of PACER Plus, which is a reference to significant development assistance funds which go hand in hand with the trade agreement and which allow Pacific island countries to engage not only in the PACER Plus agreement itself but also in the regional and, ultimately, the global economy. And that is an important form of assistance for Pacific island countries.

This particular bill provides for the tariff reduction components of the PACER Plus agreement. It's in that context that I would argue that these are significant bills to pass this parliament. There is a lot of work still to be done. The member for Fremantle is absolutely right that this doesn't deal with greater access to the Australian labour market, and there is no doubt that that is a key desire of the countries of the Pacific. There is a sense of it being incomplete so long as Papua New Guinea and Fiji are not part of the PACER Plus arrangements. But it is a step in the right direction in a context where any step in the right direction in terms of the development of the Pacific needs to be celebrated.

The fundamental challenge of a small island state is how to bring to bear a viable economy when ultimately you're talking about small populations in very geographically remote parts of the world. That is the challenge of small island states in the Pacific—it is, in fact, the challenge of small island states globally. How to solve the problem of creating a viable economy in that context is actually far from obvious. In many respects it's a much harder problem to solve than having a viable economy in a country of 25 million people like ourselves, being on a continent. If you are a population of 100,000 people on an island in the middle of the Pacific, how you come up with a solution as to what represents a viable economy is a much harder nut to crack. In that context, Australia's place within the Pacific, by contrast, is as a country having a very large economy and, indeed, a very large labour market in comparison to the countries of the Pacific. We are relatively proximate, obviously, to the countries of the Pacific.

Development assistance aid is fundamentally important in the work that we as a nation do in helping the development of the countries of the Pacific. There is no question about that. We have voiced our concern about the cuts to aid that we've seen from the coalition government. A future Labor government would seek to increase the way in which we provide aid in the Pacific. It is profoundly important. But, in the same breath, I also make the point that, given the particular difficulty of trying to establish viable economies for small island states in the Pacific, and given our relatively large economy, being geographically proximate to the Pacific, access to the Australian economy and to the Australian labour market is profoundly important and actually in a different order of magnitude to development assistance in terms of what it can do for the development of the countries of the Pacific. If we as a nation are serious about the exercise of leadership within the Pacific and seeing the development of the roughly 10 million people who live in the Pacific then we have to be about trying to open up the Australian economy and the Australian labour market more to the benefit of the peoples and the economies of the Pacific. That is the single most significant thing we can do, in an economic sense, in driving economic development within the Pacific. It really deeply matters.

I think the labour market component of that, which the member for Fremantle referred to, is probably the most important side of that equation, particularly now. The Seasonal Worker Program is a really successful example of how providing access to a relatively small number of people from the Pacific to our economy is making such a dramatic economic difference to the countries of the Pacific. We have the privilege of seeing that in operation here in terms of companies in Australia which employ people through the seasonal worker scheme. I note the member for Kingsford Smith is here, and he has seen this as well. Also, going to the Pacific, by seeing how the money earnt in Australia is put to beneficial use in villages throughout the Pacific, you realise the economic power and the developmental power that comes from that.

Opening up the Australian economy to be able to freely trade with it is also important. These bills and the PACER Plus are about that. That's principally what they're about. It is not really about trying to create and open up new markets for Australia, albeit that that occurs. The principal function, as I said at the outset, of the PACER Plus and why it has been pursued by governments of both persuasions is an attempt to provide a building block in that architecture that I've described of opening up the Australian economy and the Australian labour market to the countries of the Pacific, which is so deeply important for them. To do that in a meaningful way does require providing development assistance so that companies in the Pacific may be able to export into Australia—and, again, the member for Kingsford Smith and I have both seen firsthand many companies in the Pacific which have an ability to sell into Australia and indeed New Zealand. This makes a difference for them. It's actually them that ultimately this agreement is about and these bills are about.

We would all want bigger steps in this direction, but it is a nevertheless significant small step in this direction. I have done some work in the Pacific, as the member or Kingsford Smith has done as well. Any step in the right direction in respect of the development of the Pacific needs to be celebrated.

I have on many occasions been generally critical, I guess, about our nation's focus and intent—and perhaps our lack of intent—in terms of the way in which we engage with the Pacific. We're a country which has significant presence in the Pacific, to be sure—our diplomatic presence, our defence cooperation programs with the nations of the Pacific and our patrol boat program, and you could name a whole lot of other efforts that have been quite significant in terms of their presence within the Pacific—but our intent in terms of demonstrating an Australian leadership within the Pacific needs to be much greater than it is. It needs to be transformationally greater than it is.

To this point: it is the case that, when we speak about foreign policy and strategic policy, far too often we talk about countries other than those countries within the region where we have the greatest impact. There are 10 countries in the world which would see their primary partner on the planet as not America and not China but Australia, and yet we could walk around this building and challenge members of this House to name who those 10 countries are. That says something about the fact that we do not pay enough attention to the Pacific.

If you look at the most important bilateral relationship that we have in the world today, our alliance relationship with the United States—which obviously is largely characterised by the United States leading, given their size and their being a superpower—there is one area across a very broad relationship with the United States where the United States actually come to Australia and say: 'We'll do what you say. We'll follow you. We want to understand what Australian leadership is.' That space is in respect of the Pacific. In relation to our most important bilateral relationship, the Pacific is the place where we demonstrate to the United States what Australia looks like as a leader. And you can run that analysis in respect of Europe and in a different context in respect of China and indeed the world.

The way in which we behave in the Pacific is the single most important demonstration of Australian leadership in the world today. That's why we need to take this really seriously. The basis on which we need to take this is not seeking to have an influence over that part of the world because we can or seeking the strategic denial of others. Actually, the focus of why we need to engage in the Pacific is the 10 million inhabitants of the Pacific themselves. We need to be focused on their development, and there is significant development to be done.

The Pacific is that part of the world which performed the worst in respect of the Millennium Development Goals. It's a relative measure, but it means that development in the Pacific is going at a slower rate than in almost any other part of the world. On that measure, by a point in the 2020s, probably the late 2020s, the Pacific may become the least developed part of the world. That is relevant to Australia. That has something to do with us and who we are.

We need to change our focus so that we are absolutely focused on the development, the welfare and the prosperity of those 10 million people, because that is about how Australia looks as a leader in the world. What we have today is a small step but a step nevertheless in the right direction in respect of demonstrating that leadership, and it's because of that that I support these bills today.


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