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

9:27 pm

Photo of Janet RiceJanet Rice (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I am rising to speak to the growing Australian export opportunities across the Asia-Pacific bills. What a title! Who, with their rose-coloured glasses, invented that title? Who was not paying attention to what the real impact of this legislation will be? In fact, I think a better title for this legislation would be the 'giving big business everything they want and screwing over ordinary people in the process bills'. The Customs Amendment (Growing Australian Export Opportunities Across the Asia-Pacific) Bill 2019 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (Growing Australian Export Opportunities Across the Asia-Pacific) Bill 2019 empower corporations, not people, and we should oppose them.

The coalition has listened to its supporters—big business—and it has given them everything they want. This bill gives more power to attack workers, more power to undermine environment protections and more power to undermine the needs of ordinary, everyday people. This is all about taking power away from people, from the community, and handing it to the corporations. This bill will enable trade agreements that lock Australia into disastrous investor-state dispute settlement frameworks. I know we have heard a lot about these ISDS frameworks in the debate tonight, but I'd like to quote from Chief Justice French, who said about ISDS provisions:

Arbitral tribunals set up under ISDS provisions are not courts. Nor are they required to act like courts. Yet their decisions may include awards which significantly impact on national economies and on regulatory systems within nation states. Questions have been raised about the consistency, openness and impartiality of decisions made in ISDS arbitrations.

The Prime Minister has critiqued international organisations for negative globalism. But the truth is that the organisations that he critiques—the UN and others—are far more representative, consistent and beneficial to Australia than these ISDS clauses. ISDS clauses benefit corporations. They don't benefit Australia, and we should not be signing trade agreements that have ISDS clauses in them. This again is what Justice French had to say about them:

They have general implications for national sovereignty, democratic governance and the rule of law within domestic legal systems.

If the Prime Minister is genuine about addressing how Australia engages with its international commitments and about empowering our country and is genuinely committed to governing in the interest of his 'quiet Australians', the best place for him to start would be to examine these ISDS clauses in detail. Then he would genuinely understand how they benefit corporations rather than the Australian community.

Every single one of the agreements being implemented by these bills includes ISDS provisions. We've seen what happens with ISDS in the tobacco case. That was a case of Australia leading the world in regulatory reform, taking steps that protected our citizens and helped reduce the damage that smoking causes. Tragically, tobacco companies were willing to use ISDS to try and block this groundbreaking legislation.

There are also inconsistencies around ISDS exclusions in the free trade agreements with Indonesia, Hong Kong and Peru that are being considered here. The Peru and Indonesia agreements don't include a specific exclusion for tobacco regulation, which contrasts with the Hong Kong agreement, which contains detailed exclusions for tobacco products. But given the Philip Morris ISDS case brought against Australia, Indonesia's involvement in the WTO dispute against Australia's plain-packaging laws and Indonesia's tobacco industry, we Greens are extremely concerned that this places Australia at risk of arbitration should any regulations be made on tobacco products, such as e-cigarettes, in the future.

We do not accept the assertions that the general health exception to the ISDS sufficiently covers this. These ISDS provisions are very broad-reaching. We may see coal companies trying to use ISDS provisions to stop action on climate change. We know that at the moment the government here has its head buried in the sand on taking serious action about getting out of coal, gas and oil. But in the future, when the penny drops and the realisation is made that we need to have that serious action, that we need to have genuine action, that we need to be rapidly getting out of coal, gas and oil mining and export, we know that these fossil fuel corporations are going to try to fight it. The likelihood that they will try to use ISDS provisions to fight it is absolutely very real. The coalition government, by allowing this to occur, along with its position on not taking enough action on climate, is desperate to keep Australia trapped in the past.

Then we've got the fact that the government is trying to ram through an agreement with Hong Kong, despite the events unfolding there. We've seen what's going on in Hong Kong. It's tragic. We've seen the attacks on democracy. We've seen the tragic events as protesters have been standing up for their rights. We've seen the struggles that they've faced. Surely that should be enough to actually make the government take a step back and say, 'Now is not the time to be signing a trade agreement on Hong Kong'? But apparently not. Apparently what's happening in Hong Kong is not enough to get in the way of a trade deal. Apparently it's not enough to pause and think about what it could be doing.

And then the Labor Party, once again, are carrying out their strategy of whinge and fold. That phrase—or a less polite version of it!—was coined by some in the press gallery watching their behaviour in in this parliament. Sadly, it is all too familiar. We know why Labor have to do the whingeing—because so much of their support base is absolutely against these free trade agreements. The Australian Council of Trade Unions doesn't support ISDS provisions. Labor say that they are the party that's based on trade unionism, and that they are standing up for the rights of workers and trade unions—and yet their key stakeholders are saying to them: 'Do not agree with this legislation which has these ISDS provisions in it and the trade agreements that implement them.' But here we are again, with Labor having reached a cosy deal with the government and this bill set to sail through the parliament.

The Greens support labour market testing, and I always thought the Labor Party did, too. The Labor Party say that they do, but these agreements undermine the ability to undertake that very basic activity of labour market testing, and the end outcome is worse for everyone. It makes those workers that are brought here on particular working visas very vulnerable to their employers. They suffer from worse conditions. They suffer from wage theft, and that's on top of the wage theft that's already being perpetuated in our system. And yet, rather than trying to take action on it, the Indonesian trade agreement is allowing for an extra 4,000 to 5,000 working-holiday work permits outside the 457 visa system.

I think of the union members that I met this morning, who were in parliament to protest against the government's union-busting legislation. There was Sally McManus and Michele O'Neil, along with a room full of nurses, hospitality workers and health service workers. Labor MPs were there, in number, having their photos taken and saying how proud they were of standing up for these workers and standing up for unions. But every one of these workers is under threat from these trade agreements—under threat of having to work beside or having their jobs replaced by exploited workers who are too scared to stand up for their rights because they would be at risk of having their visas revoked if they did. We know that is going on in Australia now. We know that is the reality—that workers are being exploited on temporary work visas.

I understand Labor and the government have been having their cosy chats and they've worked out that they 'will use all necessary mechanisms to ensure that any Indonesian national utilising the additional working holiday visas is treated equally under Australian workplace law, is free from exploitation and is qualified for any work they undertake this in country'. I say to the government and the Labor Party: why don't you get that happening to those exploited temporary work-visa holders who are working here in Australia now? Get the system working here now for all of those exploited workers. And, once you've got that in place, well, then you can consider expanding that system. We know we have got a massive problem with the exploitation of foreign workers on temporary work visas—workers who are absolutely petrified that if they do anything that involves standing up for their rights they are going to be shipped back home, because they are there only at the whim of their employer. Get that sorted out first, and then we could consider expanding that system. Once you start opening up categories of people like contractual service suppliers and giving them the fast track around Australia's labour laws, they end up being exploited on below local wages and conditions.

It's for these reasons that we have heard civil society, unions and human rights groups, who have been vocal in their opposition to these agreements. The Greens are supportive of trade agreements, and it is possible to have trade agreements which promote and protect environmental sustainability, human rights, labour rights and the broader principles of fair trade. That is what we should be going into these negotiations with. We should be saying that these things are not negotiable—that we are not going to negotiate away our environmental protections and that we are not going to negotiate away our workers' rights. And, if we went into those negotiations and said, 'This is the bottom line,' then we could be negotiating trade agreements that are fair. But that's not what is on the table for us today. We as Greens believe that there is a better way. The Greens believe in a world where social justice and grassroots democracy empower people. We believe in a world where the government stands up for the rights of workers and for the rights of the environment, rather than undermining those rights. We believe in a world where the government funds the infrastructure that needs building and helps us transition to green, sustainable energy rather than relying on decrepit fossil-fuel plants. We have a vision of a better future—one where we empower communities and workers, not corporations.

I think of the weekend that I have just spent travelling through regional Victoria. I met a whole range of community members who were doing their best to work to support their communities. I met with members of local councils. I met with farmers. I met with members of LGBTIQ community organisations and others. It was exciting to see what they were doing. They were engaging in their community. They were working in sustainable agriculture on farms. They were building communities together. We need to be encouraging more of that—a world where people are empowered to build communities together, rather than a world where we have corporations riding roughshod over their rights and the rights and protections of our environment.


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