11 September 2019

My question on this appropriation is for the Minister for Regional Services, Decentralisation and Local Government and the Assistant Trade and Investment Minister. On 31 July this year, the minister claimed before the House that he does not believe that Labor managed to sign a free trade agreement in government. After that, I asked the minister to correct the record, as, of course, the statement was untrue. He did give a bit of a clarification—a Clayton's clarification, if you like—all for a bit of low-rate political pointscoring. So my first question is: why did the assistant minister seek to turn trade, a matter of extraordinary national significance, into a partisan matter for cheap political pointscoring? As I will run out of time, I'll ask my second question: will the minister commit to genuine bipartisanship on trade agreements and trade issues into the future, given the especially turbulent global context and strain on Australia's critically important economic and strategic diplomatic relationships in our region and beyond?

It was completely disingenuous for the minister to not only imply but directly state before the House that Labor has not signed a free trade agreement in government. Labor supports trade between Australia and the rest of the world because trade generates economic growth, creates jobs, improves living standards and reduces poverty all throughout our region. Labor has a long record as an advocate for an open global trading system and knows that reducing barriers to trade creates more competitive industries and benefits consumers throughout the whole region through lower prices and greater choice.

Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke and Keating went out to the regions long before those opposite ever thought of it. Labor signed the Australia-Chile Free Trade Agreement in 2008. It entered into force in 2009. Labor signed the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area agreement in February 2009. It entered into force in 2010. This powerhouse multilateral economic partnership involves Australia, New Zealand and significant developing Asian economies—Brunei, Burma, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam, as well as Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia, who entered the agreement in 2011 and 2012. Additionally, Labor signed the Malaysia-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which entered into force in January 2013. These trade agreements combined opened up the dialogue for Australia and its regional trading partners, paving the way for future multilateral negotiations and diplomacy such as we saw and agreed to in the CPTPP.

It's obvious and it's true that Labor has a rich history of spearheading strong free trade agreements and fostering economic partnerships in government, despite what the assistant minister tried to allege. In fact, it was the Hawke Labor government's deregulation of the Australian financial sector in the 1980s and, in particular, floating of the dollar which made Australia's commodities globally competitive and catapulted our export sector to become the economic powerhouse we know today. Labor in opposition supported the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement, which bolstered our trade relationship with our greatest economic partner—a relationship built on a rich history of trade and investment. The value of our trade relationship with China is enormous and accounts for a third of our export wealth. As such, ratifying ChAFTA was integral to continuing Australian export growth.

Labor supported the TPP-11, which includes developing economies in our region such as Vietnam and Malaysia, which would only aid growth in the region and is already strengthening and broadening the appeal of Australian standards such as fair industrial relations laws transnationally. The CPTPP has been integral to diversifying Australia's economy and trading relationships, which, in the current context of the very regrettable US-China trade tensions and the sluggish global economy—not to mention a sluggish domestic economy—is even more important to our ongoing economic security.

Labor will continue to work with the reasonable members of this parliament, industry and union stakeholders, because bolstering our regional trade relationships is in the best interests of all Australians. The minister and his party partake in petty politics, treating international trade agreements as conquests, like notches on a guitar. Trade negotiations are for the long term. They take time—they should take time. They go over multiple terms of government, particularly if you seek high-quality, lasting, multilateral trade agreements that benefit all actors involved. If the government would commit to taking a bipartisan approach to trade, Australia will benefit, as it is only through a productive bipartisan approach to international trade that the parties of government can resist movements that seek to blame free and open trade and demonise it for domestic political purposes.

There is an obligation on this government, on Labor as the alternative government, and on the business community to ensure the wider community does indeed benefit from open trading relationships in the world and to argue that the benefits outweigh the negatives. We saw what happened when the US used domestic politics to weaponise international free trade. The TPP became a flashpoint. It was abandoned by the US. If this government continues to use this as a partisan game, the same will happen in Australia. It will rest on your shoulders, and you should be aware of that.