Wednesday, 26 March 2014
Export Market Development Grants Amendment Bill 2014; Second Reading
I thank Senator Xenophon for his courtesy. I just want to place on record the Labor opposition's attitude to this bill. The chamber may or may not be aware that this is legislation that was first enacted a very long time ago in 1974 and established what has become a well-regarded and successful scheme to support Australian small- and medium-sized businesses exporting to the rest of the world. It is obviously a scheme predicated on Labor's strong view that Australia's current and future prosperity requires a strong trading sector, and it is our strong view that it is important that small- and medium-sized businesses in this country are assisted and facilitated in their capacity to export to the rest of the world. As I said, it was a 1974 initiative of the Whitlam government which established the original grants scheme, which demonstrates Labor's longstanding view of the importance of trade and our longstanding view of the importance of supporting our SMEs in their ability to export to the rest of the world.
We do support the passage of this bill. Some of the amendments contained in it are amendments which were, in fact, proposed by the former Labor government. Our support for this bill does also reflect the economic circumstances of the time. We are in a period of economic transition, as others have noted. We are in a period where our export industries will continue to grow in their importance to our economy. It is critical we continue to open up export opportunities, both for new and for existing export businesses, as part of this transition.
The bill before the chamber does a number of things. It aligns the EMDG scheme rules to a revised level of scheme funding. It also implements some technical changes and some simplification changes. These include a reduction in the minimum expenses threshold required to be incurred by an applicant from $20,000 to $15,000, a change to the current deduction for the provisional grant amount from $5,000 to $2,500. The bill prevents the payment of grants to applicants engaging an EMDG consultant who is assessed to be not a fit and proper person—I will come back to that shortly—and increases the number of grants able to be received by an applicant from seven to eight.
In relation to the fit and proper person provisions, we note that these provisions largely adopt the provisions previously put forward by the Labor government in the lapsed amendment bill. We note that Senator Xenophon has put forward an amendment to this chamber. I have not had the opportunity to have a discussion with him about the rationale for that, but I do indicate at this point in the debate that Labor is not inclined to support Senator Xenophon's amendment. We think it is not unreasonable for there to be a fit and proper person test, although I am happy to listen to what he has to say on this. My understanding is that there are accompanying guidelines to the fit and proper person test which would enable consultants to understand what the test means for their conduct, and I also understand—and the minister can perhaps confirm this—that any decision of the Austrade CEO in relation to the fit and proper person test would be subject to administrative review.
Although Labor does support the bill, there are some aspects of the reform proposed by the government with which we are disappointed, and I want to come to the broader context of this legislation, to which I referred in my opening statement. We have long recognised on this side of the chamber that Australia's future prosperity will be underpinned by engagement with our region. It is not a new proposition for the Labor Party. Last night I watched something on YouTube which is being tweeted in response to the very modern announcement by the Prime Minister about the return of knights and dames to Australia. He describes it as adding a grace note to our community. I think it is a retrograde note. There was a very good—
An opposition senator: Dame Penny!
I would never want to be known as that, and I place on record that that is not something I would ever aspire to. I am a person who was born in Malaysia. I have experienced what it is to live in a society where some of the vestiges of imperial hierarchies remain, and I think it is an absolutely retrograde step for this country to be returning to those sorts of outdated notions. But I will leave that to one side.
What I was trying to comment on was the fact that I watched with interest one of the YouTube clips which was tweeted. It had former Prime Minister Keating talking about the cultural cringe of the then opposition and their yearning for the mother country, which is, in many ways, demonstrated by the return of knights and dames. One of the things that Prime Minister Keating spoke about in that speech, but also more generally, was the engagement with Asia. I recall, as a much younger person in Australia, how important that was to public debate and also to our sense of self and our identity. Labor has been talking about opening up to our region and engagement with our region for a very long time. Of course, most recently in government, Labor commissioned the Australia and the Asian century white paper, which was an extraordinarily important contribution to public debate. It laid a framework not just for domestic economic policy but also for how we should think about wide-ranging matters from foreign policy to our education system and our sense of identity. It is a great pity that this government, in an act of petty partisanship, has sought to remove the white paper from government websites. It is also not wanting to talk about it. It demonstrates that it puts tribalism and partisanship ahead of national interests. It always has and always will. That is the hallmark of this government.
It is such an important aspect of who we are now and such an important part of Australia's future to understand that engagement with our region is critical to our economic prosperity but also critical to our ongoing security and identity. A confident Australia in its region—confident in its openness, confident in engaging with not only our immediate region but also the broader region—is the path to a secure, strong Australia and a prosperous Australia in the decades to come.
One of the aspects of the bill that Labor introduced in government, in the last parliament, was to include the realignment of this grant scheme to those priorities. In realigning this scheme to support small business exporting to emerging markets and to our region, it is disappointing that the Abbott government has walked away from these changes. I would have thought that, regardless of partisan views, there is real merit in leveraging public investment, which is supported in export market development grants, to further our strategic objective as a nation to more deeply engage with our region.
There was a capacity to ensure that these taxpayers' dollars were allocated in a way that leveraged that objective, which Labor believes is critical to Australia's current and future prosperity. The Abbott government's failure to embrace Australia in the Asian century and all that this implies says much about its lack of understanding of the tremendous opportunities that present themselves to this nation and about how important it is for us to fully engage and to ensure that this understanding is very much present not only in our public debate but also in all areas of our policy development and implementation.
I could talk at great length about the approach on trade agreements, but we have indicated support for passage of this legislation, so I will leave that debate for another time and simply indicate that the opposition supports passage of the bill.