Senate debates

Monday, 25 November 2019


Customs Amendment (Growing Australian Export Opportunities Across the Asia-Pacific) Bill 2019, Customs Tariff Amendment (Growing Australian Export Opportunities Across the Asia-Pacific) Bill 2019; Second Reading

12:36 pm

Photo of Jordon Steele-JohnJordon Steele-John (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I am very proud to have rolled in here this afternoon as the representative of a movement which is listening to the community when it comes to trade, and particularly listening to the union movement and concerns that have been expressed by that movement in relation to the legislation brought before the chamber—the Customs Amendment (Growing Australian Export Opportunities Across the Asia-Pacific) Bill 2019 and Customs Tariff Amendment (Growing Australian Export Opportunities Across the Asia-Pacific) Bill 2019. I will, in good time, outline in detail our concerns with each of the proposed agreements to which this legislation gives force, and I will foreshadow in detail our second reading amendments and the amendments which we will seek to bring forward during the committee stage.

But before I go into that explicit detail I want to just bring us back to some sense of accessible reality in order to facilitate an understanding for the broader Australian community of exactly what is happening in their Senate here this afternoon. Global cooperation is a wonderful thing. Peaceful global cooperation is vitally needed in the world today. Whether it be on issues like addressing climate change or tackling global wealth inequality or the many other key challenges which we as a human species face together, we will solve them only if we are able to come together and take coordinated global action, and trade can be a part of that. Through the agreements that we make with other countries, we can make sure that environmental laws protect precious places; that labour market provisions support workers and promote high wages and good working conditions; and that we promote and advance human rights. These are the possibilities put on the table when we have the opportunity to sit down with other countries and work out the terms and conditions upon which we will trade goods and services with each other.

Unfortunately, what we have seen over the last 20 or 30 years is the major parties allowing these processes to be turned into mechanisms by which corporations write rules to benefit themselves and maximise their ability to make profit and avoid the regulatory mechanisms and laws that the community puts in place to protect the environment, labour standards and human rights and to promote them globally. These dodgy trade deals championed by both sides of politics have seen the destruction of entire industries here in Australia. They have seen our precious places continue to be put at risk and have even opened up doors for corporations to sue the Australian people if government regulates in the public interest in a way which a corporation perceives might damage its assets, interests or ability to make money here. There is an urgent need to take the power back from these vested corporations and create trade agreements that enable us to put human rights, workers' rights and environmental protections at the heart of how we negotiate these agreements. And, while we are at it, we need to enable the community to independently scrutinise the content of these agreements to make sure that they work for the community, not just for big corporations. Unlike the major parties, the Greens care about people and the planet. We do not take corporate donations and will never sell the community out. We are willing to confront corporate vested interests and do the work that is needed to create a future for every single one of us.

On the implementing legislation that we are considering here today—and I want to go into it in quite specific detail—we are dealing with legislation that facilitates the implementation of three individual trade agreements: an agreement between Australia and Hong Kong, an agreement between Australia and Indonesia, and an agreement between Australia and Peru. Each of these agreements contains extremely concerning aspects, and I want to go through them in detail. Firstly and primarily with Hong Kong, the Greens have listened to the request of democracy activists in Hong Kong right now who have been saying to the Australian parliament that they need breathing space in order to continue their fight for democratic justice in that community. They have asked us to put a pause on these negotiated processes so that they can have that breathing space, and that is a position that we support.

In addition to the concerns around human rights, within the body of the agreements which this legislation seeks to facilitate the implementation of, we have ISDS clauses. For anyone following along at home, an ISDS clause is a complicated way of saying 'a pathway that enables a corporation to sue the Australian public for regulating in a way which they perceive to pose a threat or have a detrimental impact on their ability to make profit in this country'. The tribunals set up as part of ISDS processes sit totally outside of usual judicial procedural justice here in Australia in two particularly alarming ways: they sit outside of the process in relation to their transparency and independence as they are often conducted behind closed doors; in addition, the tribunal composition, which usually comprises a representative on behalf of the corporate actor and on behalf of the state party to the proceeding, is then added by a so-called independent third member. Members of these tribunals are in no way prohibited from having previously represented or subsequently representing a corporate entity in a future tribunal process. This ISDS clause sits within the Hong Kong agreement, and, while it does contain a carve-out explicitly recognising the right of the Australian government to legislate in relation to tobacco, it does not extend those explicit carve-outs to areas such as environment and labour standards here in Australia.

The concerns with the Indonesian agreement—the flaws in that agreement—are different once again. Within chapter 12 of the Indonesia agreement, there is a permit given to that country to utilise between four and 5,000 work permits, which sit outside of the previous 457 process. Enabling the import of that number of workers poses two particular challenges. One is that it may well undermine or depress the Australian labour market and wages. But it also creates another category of vulnerable workers, another bunch of folks, who are in a terrible situation where, if they speak up, if they say that something is not right in their workplace, they are under threat of being deported. That is not right.

Additionally, within the Indonesia agreement there is an ISDS clause, once again. Yet with this ISDS clause there is no carve-out for tobacco, enabling this ISDS agreement clause to be used to relitigate issues around tobacco regulation. And we all here know that our community fought a pitched battle to implement plain packaging of cigarettes, against corporations like Philip Morris. This potentially opens us up to relitigating that incredibly expensive and vital public health policy defence process. There is also a concern that this may well be the loophole through which any tobacco giant seeks to temper any potential legislation in relation to vaping which may be developed down the track. There is no doubt about the power of tobacco corporates in Indonesia, and the concern on behalf of civil society and other groups is very, very valid in relation to this issue. Peru, once again, contains that same ISDS process. That may, again, serve as a launching pad for those particular litigation processes.

There's been a lot of talk in the lead-up to this debate on what is or is not the position of many of the major parties and other players in this space, so I want to make it very clear as to the choices which the Australian Greens are going to give this chamber this afternoon or whenever we manage to get ourselves to a vote on these pieces of legislation. First of all, we will be moving a second reading amendment that puts in writing the concerns that I have outlined to the chamber this morning. Every single one of you in here will have the opportunity to vote for our amendments—to back the community concerns and the union concerns in relation to the aspects of this bill. We will then proceed to move three amendments during the Committee of the Whole process which make the implementation of these trade agreements contingent upon addressing the concerns that I have outlined. We will make the implementation contingent upon the removal of ISDS clauses for all three agreements and upon stringent market-testing processes for all three agreements, and we propose to put a pause upon the Hong Kong agreement to enable the situation to develop and to be in line with what democracy activists have asked us to do. Every single party in this chamber will have the opportunity to vote with the Greens and the community on those amendments.

As was foreshadowed in the contribution before mine, there is a profound level of disappointment in our community when it comes to what seems to be shaping up to be the Labor position in relation to these implementing bills. Let's make no mistake; let's be absolutely clear: these agreements have been written by large corporations to facilitate them making a profit. That's what they wanted to do—and their hollow shells in the LNP have been more than happy to facilitate them doing that. That has been the role of the Liberal Party in relation to trade since time immemorial. Corporates say, 'jump', and the Liberal Party not only say, 'how high?'; they ask them whether they would be like a complimentary backflip at the end. That's the role of the LNP. The community expect better from the so-called opposition in this place.

The union movement particularly has expected better from Labor in relation to this issue. The Electrical Trades Union has been very clear, and has branded this—and I believe rightly so—a lack of leadership on behalf of the federal opposition. Let's be clear: if you guys decided to find a spine on these issues, we could have a real debate about what trade should look like here in Australia. But you've decided to cave before you've even had the argument. That is so disappointing to so many of your members. The ACTU has rightly pointed out the presence of ISDS clauses within all three of these agreements, and that, regardless of any aesthetic changes that might be painted on top of a couple of them, these clauses represent a risk to Australia's sovereignty; they represent an unacceptable undermining of the ability of the government to legislate in the public interest; and they should be opposed. That is the clear message that the ALP have been sent, and yet it looks as though they are getting ready to jump into bed with corporates and with the government and get these deals through. It is incredibly disappointing to see. I note also that the Electrical Trades Union has said that it is basically done with the ALP, and that it will no longer donate nor provide logistical assistance to the ALP—based on the spinelessness that you have shown during the debate. They are right to be disappointed. I am no longer surprised at such tactics from the so-called opposition, but they expected better of you guys.

I would say to the ALP once again: the Greens amendments offer you the opportunity, at this late hour, to take the position that is in line with the union movement, that is in line with community expectations, and that is based in evidence and fact. Nobody here is talking about a return to 1930s-era protectionism. Nobody here is questioning that there is value in global, peaceful cooperation and in the facilitation of the development of mutually beneficial industries—nobody is arguing against that. The conversation which is being had is purely and simply about what the nature of these agreements is. What is the nature of these agreements? What kind of a trade environment is Australia trying to promote and support? The Greens, the community and the union movement are taking the very simple view that we here should use these opportunities to promote human rights, to promote environmental protections, and to promote the raising of labour standards at home and across the world. That is our simple contention. Our request is simply that the parties in this place join with us to force those contingencies to be placed on the implementation of this legislation.

It's not a big ask. It's not a radical ask. It's not complicated, convoluted or particularly controversial to say that a corporation should not be granted the powers to sue a government for regulating in the public interest—powers and rights that are not granted, I should say, to domestic investors. You are creating an internationally uneven playing field for the benefit of global multinational corporations, and there is no need for it. These clauses are inserted by these corporations because they do the simple calculation that no major party is willing to resist them.

We have the opportunity, this afternoon, to prove them wrong. I ask the ALP to reconsider their position—as in vain as I'm sure that request is—and to simply go back, hit the phones, talk to the ACTU, talk to the Electrical Trades Union, talk to AFTINET and talk to the folks who've done such good work in this space. Reconsider your position. Do you really want to end the year in this depressing way, doing multiple backflips for corporate Australia at the behest of the Liberal government? It makes absolutely no sense to me. The Greens will stay strong in our position: we will continue to listen to the community, we will fight for these amendments on the floor and we will continue to be the voice of people and planet and put them first—never corporate interests.

I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:

At the end of the motion, add:

", but the Senate is of the opinion that:

(a) the current process for negotiating trade agreements needs to be amended to increase transparency around the negotiations and final text of agreements;

(b) all trade agreements should be subject to independent national interest assessments;

(c) investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions need to be excluded from all trade agreements; and

(d) human rights, labour, and environmental protection provisions must be included in all trade agreements."


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