Lambi on China We let free trade blind us that we are selling our country right under our own eyes

Senator Jacqui Lambi Trade with China Senate Speech
2020: Do you know what the Chinese ambassador did when our government called for an inquiry into the coronavirus? He threatened us. He said that if Australia pushes too hard on this inquiry idea China will stop buying our meat and drinking our wine. He told us that international students would think twice about coming here to study, that the tourists would stop coming. And he knew he could make those sorts of threats. Why? Because he knew our economic dependence on China is like a vein, and if they turn it off the heart of our economy stops beating.

For far too long we've let the mantra of free trade blind us to the fact that we are selling our country right from under our very own feet. We've fallen into this false sense of security that whenever we need something we'll always be able to buy it from somewhere else. But our supply chains are so fragile, and this crisis has definitely shown us that those supply chains break. When they break, we are less safe than we thought. We've placed all our eggs in one basket—and that basket's been made in China. Self-sufficiency is never going to be possible in all areas, but it should be in a few critical ones. For the rest, we just need to make sure we're getting our goods from a diverse range of sellers. When we're so reliant on a single country to sustain our own living standards, we are vulnerable to diplomatic or economic shocks that we cannot control, shocks that can come just by running the country in a way that's consistent with our own values.

Here we value the rule of law. We value free and fair elections. We believe in privacy. We believe in the presumption of innocence. We believe in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of political expression and freedom of thought and movement. This is what we're proud of, because this is the Australian way. But our way of life is being propped up by a country that is hostile to it. It is a recipe for disaster.

This is the lesson we have to learn from the coronavirus crisis. Our reliance on other countries for our own economic survival has gone way too far. That ideology that sees free trade as being more important than protecting people's wellbeing and livelihoods—that, too, has gone way too far. Australia has to become self-sufficient again. We have to start making things again, because our complacency is putting our country at risk. But here's the good news: what we make, we can control. What we make, we know we can rely on.

I have a plan to get us there. There are five things that need to happen before Australia can start making things again. Firstly, Australia's governments need to get active in supporting industries that are important for our economic health. We need industry policy that puts money into businesses that can increase competition, support local communities and boost new industries. The federal government should remember that supporting Australian industry means helping local communities to thrive. What we get from that isn't just about jobs; it's about giving people a sense of self-worth. It gives them something to work towards. It gets them out of bed in the mornings. Now, the government can't subsidise industry forever, and I'm not saying that we have to be throwing endless amounts of cash at companies that can never turn a profit. What I'm talking about is making finance available to companies that are doing groundbreaking, important and significant work, and providing that support on a competitive basis. This is the government's job. The fact is that there are some things that are just too important to leave up to the whims of the market.

Secondly, the government should be buying Australian made. Every Australian business that tenders for a government contract should be given preferential consideration relative to foreign alternatives. If that means the government has to pay a little bit more, I'm comfortable with that, and I'm sure millions of other Australians are comfortable with that as well. Paying 10 per cent more to keep jobs and investment in Australia results in all sorts of benefits to companies that support our communities. That little bit extra is a smart investment. It certainly is in my books. It isn't rocket science. Government spending comes from Australian taxpayers. That money is coming from the people who live here and work here. So why would we send it overseas? If we put that money back into the Australian economy, we will be supporting more jobs here. We will be supporting more businesses to stay open, hire more staff and grow bigger. It's good for business and it's good for workers. It's a win-win for everyone.

Thirdly, we have to restructure our education system. Universities have been propped up by government policies that encourage foreign students to come to Australia to study courses they have no particular interest in because they know that it is a pathway to permanent residency and eventually citizenship. It is the great unspoken truth of our current university business model, and that is the truth. There were nearly 92,000 temporary graduate visa holders in Australia as of June 2019. That's a 30 per cent increase since July 2018. There is nothing wrong with international students coming here; the concern is that this river of gold has left universities too keen to look the other way and support the interests of their customers instead of the interests of their own customers in their own country.

While universities become more and more dependent on Chinese money, they are inviting the influence of the CCP's surveillance state into domestic campuses. Australian universities are actively collaborating with Chinese firms that have been implicated in a wide range of human rights abuses in China. Our universities are actively collaborating with firms that are designing surveillance and monitoring systems. Chinese students who protest the actions of the CCP on Australian university campuses have received threatening phone calls to their families warning them to not engage in anti-China rhetoric.

While the universities were raking in all this money, we have had a systematic underinvestment in our TAFE system for years. TAFE is where people go to get the skills they need to make and build things that we need to keep this country running. They are the backbone of many regional communities. But the buildings are crumbling and their equipment is so old it's from the Cold War era. Somewhere along the way we've gotten our priorities mixed up. TAFEs are the canary in the coalmine, showing that something just isn't right. Backing them is going to be essential if we want to get on the right track. Put them on equal footing. Require skilled apprentices on government projects. We are losing our trades in the name of free trade, and there is nothing free about that, especially for our kids.

Fourthly, we've got to renegotiate the crappy deals that both major parties have signed us into in the mistaken belief that all trade is good trade, which is absolute rubbish. For decades successive governments have given away our national sovereignty on the promise that free trade will improve our lives. I don't think so. We have been told that trade should be our priority and everything else should come second. We have been signed up to trade agreements that allow foreign companies to sue the Australian government if they pass a law that undercuts company profits. That's what the major parties have done, all in the name of free trade. You in the Liberal Party, you in the Nats, you in the Labor Party—you've all done it. You've all been signing us up for years. You've sold us off, and, even worse, at a bargain price. You didn't even get us a decent deal. Instead, you allowed those agreements to supersede the laws that we set here in parliament. Laws that protect Australia's national interests can be undermined by foreign multinationals who only care about protecting their bottom line. That should never be allowed to happen. Those agreements should have been rolled back. I get that it's hard, but it needs to be done. That's the sad truth of it.

Lastly, we have to tighten the rules on foreign investment. Our Foreign Investment Review Board acts like a rubber stamp. Everything gets approved; nothing gets knocked back. Take the case of Bellamy's Organic in my home state. They sell milk formula—national food security, I call it. They had been hamstrung for years because they couldn't get approval to sell their product in Chinese stores. They put in an application for this approval to the Chinese government in 2017 and they never got it. Instead, our government let the company—an Australian icon—get sold off to a large Chinese business for $1.5 billion. Why can't we get domestic investment for this stuff? It is our food security. Why isn't the government stepping in to support these firms? Once we sell off the farm gate we can't get it back; it's gone forever. There's nothing worse than knowing we have lost another.

These are the steps the government should take. But here is the thing: this is not just up to the government. This sort of change doesn't just come from the top. It's up to all of us to get Australian industries booming again. The reality is that the public needs to understand that. We can't go back to business as usual. Those days are over. I know a lot of people out there are doing it tough at the moment. I get that. I know that. But if you have the capacity, if you can, then please support your neighbours and buy Australian made. We all need to pull together and do everything we can to get through this crisis, because when we stand together as a community we can rebuild our country and get to the other side of this. We have to take back the will and take back our economic sovereignty. Australia needs to start making things right again.

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