Senate debates

Monday, 24 June 2013

Answers to Questions on Notice

Question No. 2992

3:04 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

Pursuant to standing order 74(5), I ask the Minister for Finance and Deregulation for an explanation as to why an answer has not been provided to question on notice No. 2992, asked on 23 May this year.

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Finance and Deregulation) Share this | | Hansard source

Certainly Senator Whish-Wilson is very prompt, given that I think the 30 days expired yesterday. The question does seek a large amount of detail from across government. In case the Senate is not aware, the government has been asked for a list of all clothing companies used by all government departments over the past three years and which companies supply the material—fabric, thread, buttons and zips—for government uniforms and the like. It is obviously a very substantial amount of information. We will certainly endeavour as quickly as possible to get Senator Whish-Wilson a response to the question.

I would make a couple of points in relation to the substantive core of the question. The first is that the Commonwealth Procurement Rules, for which the Finance portfolio is responsible, do require those making procurement decisions to ensure that they are using Commonwealth resources in an efficient, effective, economical and ethical manner that is not inconsistent with the policies of the Commonwealth. In addition, there is a specific obligation at paragraph 6.7

Agencies must not seek to benefit from supplier practices that may be dishonest, unethical or unsafe.

Under our devolved financial management framework, compliance with these rules is a matter for individual agency heads. The Department of Finance and Deregulation provides guidance and support for Commonwealth agencies in complying with those rules. That goes to some of the issues that were raised in the question. I will also ensure that, as quickly as is practicable, we provide a formal response to the senator.

3:06 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the explanation.

I thank the minister for her answer. Government has a very important role to play in showing leadership on this issue. It is not just about buttons and zips; this is a much bigger and very important issue of how we ethically source garments.

Four Corners will be showing a documentary tonight that relates to the collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh on 24 April when nearly 1,200 people were killed. The Senate did show some leadership on this issue, just recently passing a motion calling on all the major retailers to sign the Bangladesh accord. Following that motion, I wrote to Woolworths, Coles and Kmart asking if they would be signing that accord. So far I have received an explanation from Woolworths that they do intend to sign that accord. They certainly understand the significance of this issue.

This is all about education and the awareness of the Australian public. I must confess, going shopping with my 13-year-old daughter recently, I found there is very little information around on where garments and clothing items are sourced from. We often do not realise that attached to the production of these clothes are some appalling working conditions that will be covered by the Four Corners documentary tonight.

It is important that the government shows leadership on this issue to raise education and awareness. It certainly was not a flippant question nor was it at all a witch hunt. With the documentary being this shown evening, I did see an opportunity to get this issue on record. If we can show that we do have some sort of certification process for the garments procured by the Commonwealth then that could set a good example for other businesses. While Coles, Woolworths and Kmart are looking at signing the Bangladesh accord, that is only with one country and they are only three organisations.

A large number of other retailers and importers also bring in cheap products from foreign countries that are also associated with appalling worker safety and pay conditions. This is a really big issue. This debate relates to fair trade versus free trade. It is all about price these days in our consumer society. We buy a lot. We expect to pay virtually nothing, particularly for items of clothing. But what we do not do is stop and think about where those clothes were made, under what conditions they were made and whether our buying patterns are supporting and locking in appalling working conditions.

How do you beat this? You need an education and awareness program. You also need a certification process, if not through a voluntary code then through a mandatory code, that compels producers to identify where those garments were made, from where they were sourced and under what ethical conditions. I thought this was a good opportunity for the government to show some leadership on this issue and that is why I sent the questions through. I look forward to receiving those responses.

Question agreed to.