Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (17:46): I don’t agree with the amendment, although I do agree with the proposal put by the government in regard to the Customs Tariff Amendment (Incorporation of Proposals) Bill 2021. There are very few set-and-forget policies in government, particularly when it comes to tax and customs law. It is a scenario of constant change and adjustment. If it was Winston Churchill who said, ‘When the facts change, sir, I change my mind,’ he was completely on the money. Certainly, when it comes to issues of trade, we’ve seen many things change in recent years. The establishment of a number of free trade agreements—or freer trade agreements, as they probably should be referred to—moves by Australia in the field of antidumping, moves by other countries alleging dumping against Australia, those who take political positions and attack our trade status for, as the term would suggest, no better reason than pure politics are all things that we as a government have to face on virtually a daily or weekly basis. So, too, are the proposals that have been put up in these amendments.
Australia built a huge wall of tariffs in the early and middle parts of the last century. The dismantling of that great tariff wall began, of course, in the 1970s under Gough Whitlam, who moved for an immediate reduction of 25 per cent in all tariffs across the board. It was the beginning of a very long, drawn-out process of general tariff reduction by both sides of politics, which came to a halt, I suppose we should say, in the early 2000s, when the remnant tariff—and many would say Australia doesn’t have any tariffs—was at five per cent, where it remains, on around 50 per cent of those goods that are termed to have a rateable tariff assessment. That’s not to say that’s on 50 per cent of the goods we import; it’s nothing like that. It’s that 50 per cent of tariff items still retain tariffs.
It probably begs the question of why those remain, but I think the removal of tariffs generally has been good for Australia. There would be others that would argue differently, but certainly right back in the 1960s Bert Kelly argued strongly that one man’s tariff is another man’s job. It was Gough Whitlam who said at the time of Bert Kelly’s passing that no one man from the backbench had ever done more towards a long-term Australian policy than Bert Kelly. Through those years, they have been reduced and Australia has flourished. People have said that there would be no jobs here, but in fact even today, in the midst of a COVID crisis, we have below five per cent unemployment, so it has been good for Australia and it will continue to be. While we might beg the question, as I said, why these five per cent tariffs remain, that is the status quo and has been the case for the best part of 20 years now.
This bill deals with three different items under that tariff regime, and they’re different from each other. The first item concerns medical goods, which of course provide hygiene and safety for us in dealing with COVID-19. I think the member for Longman went through the details, but the list includes masks, gloves, clothes, gowns, goggles, visors, protective glasses, disinfectants—but, I point out, not hand sanitiser—soaps, test kits, reagents and things of that nature. A decision was made in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, which was right back in February 2020, that, on a temporary basis, free status, which means no tariffs, should be applied to these goods to ensure that we do have supply in Australia. There’s been a great ramp-up of manufacturing capacity in that time not just in Australia but also right around the world, and those things that are the first form of defence at the moment, being masks and other things, are in plentiful supply at least in a place like Australia. We’d already extended this exemption once. One would have hoped that by now perhaps the COVID crisis would be in retreat, but it’s stubbornly refusing to go and is adapting itself and making itself more dangerous to society generally, so we need a further extension. I don’t think there’s any argument about any of the amendments in this bill for that matter, but I think that’s a fully justifiable case.
On the Joint Strike Fighter—the Lightning II, as it’s called—Australia worked very hard to become a part of the global supply line for the JSF. We are one of nine nations that have won the ability to bid for content in these Joint Strike Fighters. We have 30 of them already in Australia of the 72 that we’ve ordered. Already that ability to bid to get into that supply line has been to the net benefit of Australia of around about $2 billion. That’s quite a boost to our economy, but I think, even more than that, it integrates us into one of the very high-technology lines of the world.
In my home state of South Australia there’s been a lot of investment by US, largely, and European defence contractors establishing bases here in Australia because they can see that the Australian government is committed to a higher budget level in this uncertain world for the development of technology and the supply of equipment to our defence forces after a historic low. They are here on the ground, and of course being a participating partner in the production of the Joint Strike Fighter has been of great benefit. We will see similar things—in fact, even better things, I think—when it comes to the construction of our frigates at the moment and our submarines in the medium-term future. We are also designated to become an assigned product supply provider, so we will be like the parts shop for the JSF in the Pacific region. That will be important—by definition, that is a highly specialised supply line—because, as a part of our obligations under winning those contracts, is a guarantee to our partners of neutrality on tax, and this exemption does exactly that.
On a personal note, I was on a delegation in the US in 2015. We didn’t get to see a JSF up close, and I still haven’t, even though now they’re in Australia. The member for Franklin and I sat in a simulator of the cockpit in Washington. I can fly an aeroplane but maybe not a JSF, I’d have to point out. The thing that got me was a pilot still relies on vision. You could sit in this cockpit and look through your lap. I thought, ‘Gee, I forgot to bring my legs, the seat and the bottom of the aeroplane!’ It’s a surreal thing that the cameras that sit around this hi-tech operation give you the ability to look straight through yourself as it were. I found that a bit of a surreal experience, but the technology looked pretty good to me. I’m not an assessor of aeroplanes, it would be fair to say, but the fact we were involved in its production and are going to be the parts shop for the Pacific region is very important for Australia.
The third set of items that we’re dealing with today under this free status for tariffs is around the automotive supply industries. As we all know, we don’t make any cars in Australia anymore. I heard from the shadow minister earlier that it was all the Liberal Party’s fault, but he neglected to mention who was in government when Ford and Toyota exited the scene—actually, I think that was Ford and Mitsubishi, so I should be careful about throwing stones. We don’t make cars anymore but we make components. There have been a number of components suppliers that have been able to swing over to international supply. To do that, they need to stay current with modern technologies and develop a new technology for the supply of these vehicles. It’s very important they are able to import the particular products they need for testing and development. This was an exemption that they enjoyed under the previous car transformation plan, so this new addition is really a continuation of the status quo. Once again, it just makes sense.
These three items that we’re addressing in this amendment all make sense. It’s all good policy. It’s just another show of governments being able to, as I say, chew gum and speak or walk at the same time. I don’t know about chewing gum and speaking at the same time; maybe that’s not etiquette. But either way, it is just the mechanics of government in getting on with the job. I commend the amendments.