Customs Amendment (China-Australia Free Trade Agreement Implementation) Bill 2015


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (13:04): I rise to speak on the Customs Amendment (China-Australia Free Trade Agreement Implementation) Bill 2015 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (China-Australia Free Trade Agreement Implementation) Bill 2015. This is a very serious debate about an act that will implement a scheme that I believe is very important for Australia and is so very good.

In this debate I have been very pleased to listen to the very thoughtful contributions made by Senator Williams, Senator Back, Senator Heffernan and even, might I say, Senator Leyonhjelm. That does not mean that I agree with everything those speakers said, but I very much appreciated their thoughtful contribution to this very serious debate. I do not make much reference to the Labor Party except to say that there is one element of Senator Ludwig's speech that I do agree with. That is when Senator Ludwig said, talking about the Greens political party, 'The Greens political party oppose everything.' I certainly agree with that bit of Senator Ludwig's speech.

This is a very important measure and one which I wholeheartedly support. I must indicate that I originally had some reservations when, unfortunately, sugar could not be included in the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Sugar is the industry that thrives in the town where I live and in North Queensland and northern New South Wales generally. When Mr Robb rang to give me that bad news, I indicated to him that if his assurance that it would be included in the TPP was not met I would be voting against the TPP. I intended to support the China agreement because of all the good things that it does for every other part of Australian agriculture and manufacturing although, regrettably, sugar was not included. Sugar has been included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Whilst this is not to the extent that I would have liked to have seen, it is certainly a start and it will give the sugar growers in my area, the sugar industry of Queensland and New South Wales, some toehold into the American market, which has, so far, been very strictly controlled against Australian sugar.

I appreciate the support of the Australian Labor Party. You will recall that, when this first came out, at the behest of the unions the Labor Party were totally opposed to the China free trade agreement in spite of the fact that all the Labor state premiers, former premier and former union leaders said to the Australian Labor Party: 'Look guys, this is good for Australia. Get on board.' But in those early days the Labor Party here was more influenced by the union movement and so they came out in full-scale opposition to it. They have now realised the error of their ways. They have taken notice of some Labor luminaries and have understood just how good this is for Australian jobs, Australian workers, Australian businesses and Australian farmers.

I very much appreciate the Labor Party's about-face. Sometimes I am critical about about-faces but in this case I am not. They have been able to support the agreement with, I concede, some concessions made by the government—as I understand them they are concessions of words only and not much more. The amendment regarding 457 visas simply prescribes the existing requirement under the policy that employers seeking to sponsor skilled workers will have to demonstrate that they have made recent and genuine efforts to recruit local Australian workers. That has always been the case. What the Labor Party insisted upon is that it be codified. If that was the price of getting their support, it was a cheap price. Certainly, it is just stating the process that had always happened. It is important to note that labour market testing is already a mandatory requirement under current government policy, and that is detailed in the existing DIBP guidelines.

The government also agreed to make some minor amendments to guidelines for companies seeking a work agreement. To ensure observance of the guidelines they are going to be referenced in a new guideline. Those things already happen, but the Labor Party wanted them in writing. So they are there. Again, that is a small price to pay to get the agreement passed. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection will include in its annual report details about the number of work agreements signed, including the number of 457 visa holders engaged under the agreements, together with the occupations and industries which are engaged. In talking about 457 visas, it is important to understand that they were at their momentous peak at the time of the Labor government. In the six years of Labor government, there were more 457 visas holders working in Australia than there have been since the Abbott and Turnbull governments have been in power. Of course, we all remember that even the then Prime Minister's chief of staff was brought in on a 457 visa because apparently there was no-one good enough in Australia to run the Prime Minister's office. With the way that office was run, one would wonder whether the 457 visa holder who took on that job actually earned his money.

Senator Cameron: Even I agree with you!

Senator IAN MACDONALD: As we all know from history, that office was dysfunctional. The unions keep running this campaign against Labor—and I hear Senator Cameron. The Labor Party represents the unions, but who do the unions represent? I used to say that they represented only 17 per cent of the Australian workforce, which means 83 per cent do not support the unions and do not join a union. But I am now wrong. Those figures are outdated. The Bureau of Statistics has issued new figures. Actually, the figure is now 15 per cent. Unions in Australia, across the board, only represent 15 per cent of all workers. That means 85 per cent of workers choose not to join a union—and you can understand why when you see the latest revelations coming out of the royal commission about the corruption, dishonesty and theft that occurs in the union movement. The case of the National Union of Workers in New South Wales, which is very closely aligned to the New South Wales Labor Party, is just the latest in a series of disclosures that have shown how corrupt many of these unions are. One can only wonder why there are still 15 per cent of workers joining unions.

And in the private sector—that is, the non-government sector—that figure has fallen from 12 per cent to 11 per cent. So now only 11 per cent of workers in the private sector—which is, of course, the biggest employer group in Australia—choose to join a union. That means 89 per cent of all workers in Australia choose not to join a union, and yet the union controls the Labor Party and the Labor Party is an alternative government. So those figures need to be taken into account when you understand that the Labor Party were originally told by the unions to oppose this agreement despite Labor luminaries urging the Labor Party to support it. I am delighted—and credit where credit is due—that the Labor Party has woken up to itself and agreed to the China free trade agreement with a number of very minor regulatory arrangements which only codify the practices already involved.

I also want to laud the Minister for Trade and Investment, Andrew Robb. The work he has done with not just with the China free trade agreement but also the Japan free trade agreement, the Korea free trade agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership is miraculous and it is already legend.

I have just flown back from Darwin overnight where, unfortunately, I was able to attend only the first day of the Northern Australia Investment Forum because I could not get leave from this place. Having gone all day in Darwin yesterday, Sunday, the forum is also being held today and tomorrow. Coincidentally, it is being hosted by Andrew Robb and the newly appointed minister for northern Australia, the Hon. Josh Frydenberg, with the attendance of several other senior coalition ministers and state ministers. In my estimate, there were over 350 people at the forum; 250 of whom were foreign investors—people with money from overseas wanting to look at investments in northern Australia. The number of people there and the names of some of the people there—due to their commercial standing, particularly throughout South-East Asia—were something magnificent to behold. It was a wonderful start to the forum yesterday. There were a lot of positive words said. Today and tomorrow, the investment forum will continue its good work. This can only be good for Australia. It is related to investment in northern Australia, but investment in northern Australia means good things for the rest of Australia as well. It will help increase investment, increase business and increase jobs. That means a better living standard for us all.

I want to pay tribute, as well, to Mr Adam Giles, Chief Minister of the Northern Territory government. He is a very involved participant in the Northern Australia Investment Forum in Darwin. In fact, his government is hosting the facilities there. The attendees had a wonderful welcome to Darwin last night. They had some wonderful Northern Territory seafood, beef and other produce. This welcome demonstrated to the large number of potential investors there just what can be done in the Northern Territory. Mr Adam Giles is, as I say, a wonderful and exciting Chief Minister of that territory. I foresee that, under his leadership, the Territory will continue to go from strength to strength. Naturally enough, my interest in the China free trade agreement relates to northern Australia. It is where I come from. Senator Williams, Senator Heffernan and perhaps Senator Reynolds as well are the only three senators in this chamber who actually live in a small country town. In the case of Senator Williams and Senator Heffernan, they are actually farmers. They know firsthand the benefits that can flow from this.

I want to, just briefly, mention some of the benefits to northern Australia, particularly for my own state of Queensland and the Northern Territory. Tariffs on beef into China, currently between 12 and 25 per cent, will be completely eliminated within nine years. I am the patron senator for the electorate of Kennedy—and I must say, with some modesty, I do most of the work in that electorate because the current member is completely inept when it comes to assisting his constituents. Perhaps Ms Price, the member for Durack, will argue with me, but I would suggest that the electorate of Kennedy is probably the biggest beef electorate in Australia. Perhaps Durack might give us a run for our money, but I will go with Kennedy. What does the current local member do about the China free trade agreement? He says it is the worst thing that has happened to democracy in 300 years. Yet the tariffs on beef into China come off. You would think that would be a very, very strange comment from the guy who, supposedly, represents what I claim to be the biggest beef cattle electorate in Australia.

Also in Queensland, horticulture tariffs of 30 per cent will be eliminated progressively over the period. The tariffs of 14 per cent on rawhide and skin will be eliminated over two to seven years. I want to refer to the coal industry—and the Greens will be, I am sure, supportive of this! The three per cent tariff on coking coal into China will be eliminated when this agreement comes into force. The six per cent tariff on non-coking coal will be eliminated within two years. What a wonderful thing that will be for the coal industry up where I come from in the Bowen Basin—an area suffering huge unemployment at the present time because of the activities of the previous government in relation to coal and the unmitigated campaign against coal by the Greens political party and their fellow travellers. This free trade agreement will make it easier to take coal into China. Contrary to the claims of the Greens political party, China continues to use coal. The claims by the Greens that the Chinese coal use has fallen dramatically are, according to recent reports, dramatically overstated. So that is good news again for northern Australia.

Tariffs for liquefied propane and butane, currently at five per cent, and for refined petroleum, crude petroleum and LNG, all between five and nine per cent, will be eliminated when this agreement comes into force. Tariffs of one to two per cent on refined copper and alloys—very important in places like Mount Isa and Townsville—will be eliminated. The eight per cent tariff on alumina will be eliminated on entering into force. What a wonderful thing that will be for Weipa and all of the workers at Weipa. For those in the Gladstone area, represented by my friend Ken O'Dowd, the elimination of tariffs into China for alumina and aluminium sheets and plates will be a huge boost for jobs.

The Northern Territory—again, a very big beef producer—will do very well out of the reduction in beef tariffs. Mangoes currently attract a 15 per cent tariff into China. That tariff for mangoes grown, again, in the electorate of Kennedy, on the Atherton Tableland, and in the Northern Territory, will be completely eliminated within four years. What wonderful news that is for the mango growers in the electorate of Kennedy and the electorate of Lingiari. As I mentioned, tariffs on hides will go, and I have mentioned alumina. Precious stones currently have tariffs of three to eight per cent. Diamonds and opals are important up in the Kimberleys. Those tariffs will also be eliminated, over four years.

Time does not permit me to go further into the benefits for Northern Australia, but the couple of issues I have raised indicate just how very important this free trade agreement is to Northern Australia. It is important that it be passed now, so that we get the advantage of a reduction at the end of this year and another reduction at the beginning of next year. It is a wonderful agreement for Australia—I give all credit to Mr Andrew Robb—and perhaps I am a bit parochial, but it is an even greater benefit to Northern Australia. I am delighted that this bill will be passed, with support of the Labor Party, this week, at a time when we are involved in the attraction of investment from South-East Asia and, indeed, from across the world into Northern Australia at the Northern Australia Investment Forum, which is currently occurring. It is a wonderful time for Northern Australia. I am so excited about the agreement. I am delighted to support it and do everything I can to make sure that it is brought into play as soon as possible. (Time expired)

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