Wednesday, 20 February 2019
Export Finance and Insurance Corporation Amendment (Support for Infrastructure Financing) Bill 2019; Second Reading
Part of being a good and responsible global player means supporting and assisting our neighbours. This is a standard tenet of international relations conventions. It encourages prosperity and peace, and that benefits everybody. Economic integration into the Pacific is not new to Australia. Our country has been deeply enmeshed in the region for well over a century, and we have issued white paper after white paper committing Australia to more ambitious engagement in the region to ensure long-term sustainable growth, increased economic resilience and national security.
The people of the Pacific islands are our neighbours. As my colleague the member for Kingsford Smith has mentioned, they are in the bottom percentile of socioeconomic status in the world. This is not a record we as a wealthy and prosperous nation should be proud of—that our direct neighbours across the Pacific are amongst the poorest in the world. We can and should be doing a lot more to ensure that the nations of the Pacific are prosperous, stable and democratic and that their people are healthy, educated and able to participate fully in the community of nations.
This bill, the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation Amendment (Support for Infrastructure Financing) Bill 2019, builds upon what is already happening by providing the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation, Efic, the ability to further fund offshore infrastructure projects in our region through the provision of an additional $1 billion in callable capital. This will be done through the provision of loans on a commercial basis and which, importantly, meet an Australian benefits test. So it's a hand up, not a hand out.
In October last year, the Leader of the Opposition announced that a Labor government would create a government funded infrastructure bank for the region, saying:
My vision for Australia is to actively facilitate concessional loans and financing for investment for vital, nation-building projects through a government-backed infrastructure investment bank.
The bill before us and the proposal that it includes align strongly with this ambition. Financing infrastructure of our shared region of the planet is happily a goal shared across the aisle.
Importantly, Efic will be the instrument that provides the loan component of the new Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific which was announced in November last year. The bill, alongside the mechanisms implemented through the AIFFP, will allow Australia to provide financial assistance to the region to build critical, nation-building and high-priority infrastructure through the facilitation of concessional loans and investments into relationships which are fundamental to the region's stability and our long-term security.
I mention long-term security quite deliberately. It's in our interests to have a stable neighbourhood. In your neighbourhood at home, in your own house, it is in your interests to have neighbours who are also in stable homes. We do best when we look after each other. It's in Australia's security interests to have a stable region. So we can provide this sort of assistance, for want of a better phrase, for the right reasons—to assist people, to lift them out of poverty and to nation-build—but also to look after our own interests. Australia is not the first country to sign on to such a program. New Zealand has one. Japan and the United States are exploring options.
It's our responsibility in Australia to ensure that our region is supported. The Asia-Pacific's infrastructure market is expected to grow by seven or eight per cent a year over the next decade. That's estimated to reach a value of $5.36 trillion a year by 2025, representing, I'm told, 60 per cent of the world's total. I do stress that that's the Asia-Pacific, not the Pacific. The nations of the Pacific can be part of this story, but the challenges there need to be faced and overcome, particularly underinvestment and difficulty in accessing finance in order to maintain and replace ageing infrastructure. Pacific nations need investment in electricity and energy assets, manufacturing facilities, transportation networks and water infrastructure. Without this investment, our neighbours risk falling behind even further, leading to even lower living standards and poorer outcomes in health and education.
I take up the comments of the member for Kingsford Smith: climate change is absolutely the No. 1 issue facing Pacific nations. The leadership of the Pacific Islands Forum even place it above global national security concerns. They say climate change is an existential threat to their countries. We've seen the reports of seawater literally washing communities away. It's affecting fresh water supplies. We all remember that infamous joke from the Minister for Home Affairs with the former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, when they were caught with the sound mic over them, having a bit of a joke about water lapping at the feet of people in the Pacific islands. Well, it's no joke to them. It might be a joke to people in the nice, wealthy suburbs of the North Shore of Sydney, but it's no joke to the people of the Pacific, who are living with an existential threat of climate change.
It's our responsibility to be part of the solution. It's not all our responsibility; it's a shared responsibility, but, if we are truly going to be a leader in the community of nations, we have to shoulder our burden. It's part of our responsibility, and we have to face up to that. Physically we're an island, but morally we shouldn't be. Providing assistance for infrastructure development means that Australia is being a good neighbour and friend, but, unapologetically, we are, of course, looking out for our own interests.
It's fair to say that some in Australia will view any assistance to overseas nations as a waste of money or as money that should instead be spent in Australia. Some of the comments that members may hear when they're doorknocking around the community are: 'Why should we be supporting poor people overseas when we have our own poor people to look after? What about the pensioners?' We all hear it: 'Why aren't we doing more for the pensioners? Why aren't we doing more for our own people instead of looking after people overseas?' Labor's view is that it's not either-or; it's both. We can and should be a decent member of the international community, not instead of being good and decent for our own people but as well as. We can do both. There is enough wealth in Australia to ensure that we can meet these obligations jointly.
I am drawn to the famous example of the rich man, the poor man, the refugee and the 100 beans. The rich man hoards 99 beans for himself and then whispers to the poor man, who has been left with one bean, 'Hey, watch that guy'—meaning the refugee, who has nothing—'He's after your bean.' We see this scenario played out day after day in Australia. Those with extraordinary wealth and power are turning Australians against each other, pensioners against students, retirees against sole parents, workers against the unemployed. Blame each other for your problems in life! Blame your neighbour who is darker skinned than you or who worships a different God, the woman who demands equality, the kid who's gay. These are the people to blame for your problems and your troubles in life—just so long as you never cast your eye to those who own the billions, who live in the mansions, who fly the private jets; just so long as you never say, 'Maybe you've got more than your fair share.'
But I digress. We invest in the Pacific because it's both the right thing to do as an international citizen and the right thing to do for our own national interest. Many people look at these problems with a sense of disconnect. They look at the road issues in the Pacific region without a sense of appreciation for how addressing the issues there can impact our own lives here in Australia and the wellbeing of the local economy in places like Tasmania. But by investing in the region, by boosting Pacific economies and improving Pacific infrastructure, Tasmanian exporters, for example, are better able to access new markets. Having improved roads and transport networks through the Pacific means that our exporters are better able to get their goods to market there. It opens up opportunities in the Pacific for people to be able to perhaps afford the goods that we have to sell. So it's a symbiotic relationship.
Tasmanians do have a significant presence in the Asia-Pacific. The Asia-Pacific loves Tasmanian produce, and exports from our island are growing year on year. Our produce is trusted. It carries a high brand recognition and it demands a premium. Mainland China remains our biggest export destination, closely followed by Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the US, Thailand, Hong Kong, India, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore and Sri Lanka. I look forward to the Pacific islands joining that list of export markets for Tasmanian produce. There's a lot that we can share together in this regard, and Efic, which of course is to be renamed Export Finance Australia as part of this bill, can be part of that success story.
I look forward to having a continuing appreciation of the export success story that Australia has in the Pacific region. We can and should do more to be in partnership with our neighbours in the Pacific. I had the great pleasure, when I used to work for Duncan Kerr, who was a former parliamentary secretary for the Pacific Islands, of travelling to the Pacific with him and seeing firsthand both the opportunities and the challenges across those nations. They're hardworking, resilient people, and we can and should be doing more, as neighbours, to ensure that we have a greater partnership. I note in passing the Pacific Islander fruit-picking scheme, where Pacific Islanders come to Australia for the fruit-picking season; they'll do a bit of fruit picking and send the proceeds home, and those proceeds then support their families back home. That's laudable, and it helps get the fruit picked, which is difficult to do in Australia and certainly Tasmania; it's difficult to get the labour to have that done. So the Pacific islands have a role to play there. The more we can forge good relationships with our Pacific neighbours and the more we can build on a trusting, respectful relationship across the Pacific and see ourselves as part of, not ancillary to, their future, the better off we all will be. Thank you.