12 February 2015





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I move: “That the Senate take note of the Minister’s statement.”

The first point I would make is that this Minister and this Government have only come in here to make what was, frankly, an extremely short and extremely uninformative statement to this chamber because they were ordered to do so by the Senate chamber.

It reminds us yet again how this Government simply refuses to bring the Parliament into its confidence when it comes to the priorities it has for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the conduct of those negotiations, but also, most importantly, of the Government’s position on key issues which will affect and which could affect Australia for better—or not.

I do welcome the statement from the Minister.

What I would say, again, is that we have been urging for this for some time and regrettably have had to take the step of obtaining an order of the Senate for the Minister to make a statement.

We believe that this Government has failed to keep the Parliament and the public informed of the nature and progress of its trade negotiations, and this includes in relation to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

In fact, we have urged Minister Robb to make a full Ministerial statement about these matters, which he has declined to do.

It is very interesting.

The Government is very happy to trumpet the benefits of agreements on the basis of press releases but much less happy to tell Australians what its approach is or how it is going to treat some very difficult issues—some of which I will turn to in a moment.

The Minister, in her statement, talked about some of the issues which I think Australians are entitled to more information on, because the Government’s approach to them could very substantially affect our domestic regulatory arrangements.

Intellectual property, for example.

If the Government is suggesting that there might be wholesale changes—for example, to copyright law—I think it is incumbent upon the Government to have a dialogue with the Australian community and this Parliament about that.

Is the Government guaranteeing, for example, that our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme will not be affected? I think the Government should be upfront with Australians about the detail of that.

My view is—and I say this as someone who is pro-trade—that the Government should engage with the community, explaining and defending its position on these difficult issues before signing an agreement on behalf of the Australian people. It should.

I would make this point: my party, the Australian Labor Party, has had a recognition of the benefits of trade liberalisation for over 40 years.

We have recognised that it can boost growth, create jobs, forge more competitive industries and give consumers greater choice and lower prices.

Let’s recall some of the reforms that Labor in government has made

Reforms which were about opening up the Australian economy and our society to the world:

  • bringing down the post-war tariff barriers;
  • floating the dollar;
  • deregulating the financial sector;
  • pursuing multilateral trade liberalisation;
  • initiating the APEC forum;
  • working to bring together the G20;
  • identifying and embracing the opportunities for Australia in the region by placing the Australia in the Asian Century white paper at the centre of national debate;
  • and opposing protectionist responses to the global financial crisis both at home and abroad.

We understand that global trade has contributed to significant real price reductions for Australian families.

Let’s recall that trade liberalisation and many other policies under the Hawke, Keating, Rudd and Gillard Governments have contributed to over two decades of continued economic growth, a feat no other country has achieved.

Reflexive opposition to trade agreements is not the Labor way.

We will always assess proposed agreements on their merits to ensure that they are in the national interest.

I do agree with those who make the very good policy point that the greatest potential benefits from trade can be delivered through the World Trade Organisation and multilateral trade reform.

Bilateral and regional trade agreements can be beneficial but often deliver second- or third-best outcomes.

I have consistently stated that such agreements must serve as a stepping stone to stronger multilateral progress.

But in the absence of substantial progress at the WTO we do take the view that the pursuit of agreements with trading partners is a legitimate task for Government.

Let’s turn to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

As the Minister referenced, 12 countries, which account for some 40 per cent of global GDP, are taking part in the TPP talks, and a high-quality, comprehensive TPP could deliver access for goods and services in countries with which we do not have existing bilateral trade agreements and it could add billions of dollars a year to the global economy.

I make the point that our support for trade is not because of some ideological, neoliberal position, as some have suggested in this place.

It is because we understand that access to export markets and trade are central to ensuring jobs and better wages and conditions for Australians.

A very good example of that is domestic final demand, which is essentially a measure of economic growth—GDP barring exports.

If you look at what has happened to domestic final demand over the last decade, you will see that in the period post June 2012, in these last few years, we have seen quite subdued domestic demand.

What that tells us is that we cannot rely only on our domestic economy to generate the economic growth needed to create jobs.

I say this in the context of a Government which is currently presiding over not only subdued domestic demand but also an unemployment rate at 6.4 per cent.

So I say to those who have indicated a position that is anti-trade, the reason the Labor Party has supported trade and continues to support trade agreements is because we want more jobs and better economic growth for Australians.

But—and this is the reason why Labor joined the TPP negotiations under the former Government, and it is a very important point—notwithstanding any potential benefits, the Trans-Pacific Partnership must not do a number of things.

It must not affect our ability to deliver public services.

It must not undermine labour and environmental standards.

It must not reduce the capacity of Australians to access affordable medicine through the PBS.

It should not radically alter the existing legal balance between creators and consumers of intellectual property.

That is the Labor Party’s view.

And in relation to Investor-State Dispute Settlement, I again say what I have previously said: this Government should not sign a Trans-Pacific Partnership which would provide foreign corporations with legal rights that are superior to the rights of domestic businesses.

That is our view.

I note that the Minister raised a couple of those controversial issues, which are not esoteric but potentially have implications for domestic regulatory arrangements, in her speech.

But do you know what she did not do? She did not tell us what their position was.

She did not tell us what the red lines are that the Government is taking.

She did not tell us what approach the Government is going to take when it comes to issues such as intellectual property.

She did not tell us whether wholesale changes to our intellectual property regime are contemplated. I think Australians have a right to know that.

Rather than arrogantly dismissing some of the concerns which have been legitimately expressed in the community about the TPP, as this Government and the Minister for Trade do, by suggesting this is all about people who hate trade, perhaps the Minister for Trade could actually take people into his confidence and talk to them about what he is trying to achieve, how he is going to protect things like our PBS, how he is going to approach the issue of investor-state clauses and why an agreement would be beneficial.

But they do not do that. They simply dismiss the concerns raised by anybody as being illegitimate.

As somebody who is on record over many years advocating the benefits of Australia’s closer engagement with the growing economies of Asia, I find it very disappointing that this Government chooses not to engage, because I think it ensures that people’s concern and fear is intensified.

Rather than dismissing the calls for transparency—and the Minister representing did it again today when she said, ‘We don’t want to put text forward.’—perhaps the Government should go to the heart of the matter and be much more upfront with this Parliament and the community about its intentions around the TPP and how it will handle some of the difficult issues and what some of the bottom lines are so there is not the sort of reaction which one can expect from some quarters.

But I suspect the Government will not do that.

It really does stand in stark contrast to the way the US Trade Representative engages with Congress.

I saw a press release from Mike Froman, who is the US Trade Representative, about the number of meetings he has had with Congress in relation to the TPP. I cannot recall—and I will come back if I am incorrect—but I think it was over 1,000.

He has had hundreds of meetings with legislators about the approach of the Obama administration to the TPP.

Now the Government would say that it is a different system, and it is true that it has a different constitutional set of arrangements when it comes to external treaty making.

But the principle of engagement, I think, is one that could be transposed to Australia, and it would benefit the Government if it did that.

Instead, they are dragged kicking and screaming to provide information.

The Minister today, again, has given a statement less than two minutes long, with almost no information other than the talking points.

Today, she answered a question on the China free trade agreement. We still have not seen anything other than the glossies and a press release in relation to that.

These are important agreements, and I think Australians are entitled to more engagement by the Government on these issues.

On this point of transparency, in addition to requiring a statement by the Minister, the Senate order made yesterday draws to her attention an order made on 11 December 2013 requiring bilateral and plurilateral trade agreements to be tabled at least 14 days before signing.

Labor’s position—let’s be very clear—is that Parliament should see the final text of trade agreements before they are signed.

We do not side with all those who call for every draft negotiated text to be placed in the public domain.

As a party of government, we understand that sometimes that may not be helpful to achieving the best outcome for Australia.

I have to say, as someone who has been involved in negotiations, I think only people who have never conducted negotiations between governments would think it was a reasonable demand to have every draft text in the public arena.

But let’s not correlate the release of every draft text with greater transparency.

There are other ways in which a Government can ensure greater transparency in relation to their trade negotiations than being required to release every draft text that is on the table for consideration.

And, in fact, if those who seek greater transparency could advocate and join with us in requiring the Government to make more detailed information available, the Government may not have the refuge of the obvious defence that executive governments ought not have to release every draft text of every negotiation, whether it be trade or anything else.

The fundamental core issue here is that the Government is not updating this Parliament and the community about progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

And it is certainly not being clear with this Parliament and the community about its attitude when it comes to those difficult issues on which Australians have very strong views—whether it be investor-state clauses, intellectual property arrangements or many other matters.

The Government should be upfront about its objectives, it should be upfront about the broad parameters it takes into trade negotiations and it should deal with some of the concerns which the community has raised.

That is a common sense proposition.

I think the Government’s approach to these matters of trade really demonstrates some of the deeper political problems the Government is having and the attitude the Government takes.

I do not understand why this Government thinks everything has to be a fight.

I do not understand why this Government thinks that it cannot actually engage with others.

There is growing concern about the Government’s approach on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

What I would say to the Government is this: your unwillingness to engage with the community is giving free rein to uninformed speculation and giving rise to greater concern, and that is not helpful.

It is time this Government fulfilled its responsibility to the nation by explaining its position on key issues and by listening and responding to community concerns.