Thursday, 2 September 2021
Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade; Report
On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the report of the committee on activating greater trade and investment with Pacific island countries, and I move:
That the Senate take note of the report.
I understand that Senator McCarthy wishes to speak to this report.
[by video link] On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I'm pleased to speak to the report titled One region, one family, one future: deepening relations with the Pacific nations through trade.
The global coronavirus pandemic has closed borders across the Pacific region since early 2020 and subsequently disrupted tourism, trade and investment between Australia and our Pacific island neighbours. Unsurprisingly, the measures aimed at protecting public health from the worst of the coronavirus pandemic may have also had a devastating economic impact on many Pacific island countries, especially those reliant on international tourism or receiving remittances from their hardworking seasonal workers employed across Australia.
Such has been the case here in the Northern Territory, which faced severe seasonal worker shortages for the 2020 mango season. We were pleased to welcome 160 workers from Vanuatu in late 2020 under a pilot program which was beneficial to the NT mango industry and also helped the struggling Vanuatu economy. The High Commissioner of Vanuatu, His Excellency Mr Samson Vilvil Fare, told the committee:
We really welcome Australia's move, with a pilot program, to bring in workers from Vanuatu to the Northern Territory, because I think from that we will be able to learn ways that, under COVID-19, we can bring our seasonal workers back into our country. We look forward to Australia sharing the learnings out of the Northern Territory on how it goes with the 160 or 170 workers there.
Of course the committee acknowledged the need for regulation of employers and training of workers to address their vulnerability to worker exploitation. Concerns were raised regarding lack of payment, or payment of less than the minimum wage; long hours of work in extreme heat conditions; exceeding laws on maximum work hours; substandard and overcrowded accommodation; exploitation by migration agents through misrepresentation and deduction of large sums from wages; and employers violating rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining by banning union membership. These concerns are reflected in the report's recommendations which recognise the need for improved regulatory and administrative processes, particularly access to superannuation.
This report outlines the significant role the Australian economy can play in the region through improved and more open trade relations with Pacific island countries. Many of these islands are ranked in the top 10 most remote economies as measured by their distance from global markets. The populations of some islands are among the smallest, and some among the poorest nations in the world too.
The committee recognises the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus travel restrictions due to the growing importance of labour mobility schemes and remittances being sent back home to many families and communities across the Pacific. This highlights the need, in accordance with relevant public health advice and ongoing vaccination programs, for developing a safe travel bubble between Australia and those Pacific island countries that are willing to participate. When safe to do so, this travel bubble will not only support Australia's trade and investment ties with the Pacific but also prove critical to supporting Pacific employees and their communities back on their home islands, as well as the many farms and regional businesses needing their skills and hard work.
The committee supported the need for job-creating investment to improve Pacific islands' flagging infrastructure. Much will be gained by Australia and the Pacific nations embracing the Pacific Quality Infrastructure initiative to support the delivery of better-quality infrastructure and assist with further economic development. After 56 submissions and eight public hearings, including round tables with the diplomatic representatives of Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Kiribati, and also with many businesspeople trading in the Pacific region, this report looked for solutions to the many challenges facing the Pacific. I acknowledge in particular the chair of the JSCFADT, Senator David Fawcett, and the chair of the subcommittee, Mr Ted O'Brien. I also acknowledge all committee members, in particular my Labor colleague Senator Sheldon, who worked very closely with me on this inquiry.
Among the many recommendations aimed squarely at helping activate trade with the Pacific, the report supports the implementation of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, PACER Plus, with Pacific island countries to support long-term economic development, deeper security cooperation, and closer personal and business connections between Australians and Pacific islanders. The recommendations state:
Members also want the Australian Government to forge closer economic ties with two key nations outside of PACER Plus – in Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
The report recommends pursuing measures to develop a regional Pacific standard with Australian expertise and support, to assist both Australian and Pacific exporters to bolster their trade opportunities and gain easier access to larger markets. The report also recommends that Australia should be:
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These schemes include thousands of workers from the Pacific region. Much of this work should be aimed at:
The report also recommends:
A special mention must also go to the diplomatic and government representatives of Pacific island countries who attended in person or by teleconference a parliamentary round table in Canberra. They shared their invaluable insights on the challenges faced by communities on their home islands from the pandemic but also on the many opportunities ahead. May I also add our thanks to the hardworking secretariat of the Trade Sub-Committee: I thank each and every one of you for the work you've done to assist the senators and members in putting forward this trade report One region, one family, one future: Deepening relations with the Pacific nations through trade. I commend the report to the Senate. I seek leave to continue my remarks.