I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the Export Market Development Grants Amendment Bill 2014, because I understand the importance of export market development grants. The EMDGs provide assistance to aspiring and current exporters. They are a key measure in supporting Australia's small and medium sized businesses who want to develop export markets.
As a former small business owner, I know that these kinds of decisions can be heavy indeed. Deciding to export involves a great deal of risk. The research, promotion and travel required to identify markets and to build relationships to begin exporting are incredibly costly, time-consuming and rewarding. But they involve years of effort. The EMDGs reimburse a significant amount of eligible export promotion expenses, and the financial support available through them is often fundamental in providing business owners with the assurance that they need to begin exporting.
I will single out two fabulous organisations in my electorate who are doing amazing work in exporting overseas. The first is Aspen Medical, which last year won the ACT Exporter of the Year award. Aspen Medical's story is phenomenal. It is quite well-known right throughout Australia because of its extraordinary work. For those who do not know it, like so many successful small businesses it began at a kitchen table with a husband and wife team. And now Aspen Medical delivers world-class health care in remote, challenging and under-resourced environments. In 2012-13 Aspen Medical's exports grew to $44 million—an increase of 16 per cent over 2011-12—and accounted for almost 20 per cent of total turnover. During this time worldwide revenue more than doubled, and its team doubled in size. Growth is expected to continue as Aspen Medical leverages relationships with government departments, the resources sector, Indigenous partners and humanitarian organisations in the US, UK and UAE. They are an extraordinary outfit that I am very proud to have in my electorate. They just keep winning export awards and business awards—award after award. They are an extraordinary organisation.
The other organisation I would like to talk about today is CEA Technologies, which is located in Fyshwick in my electorate—again, an extraordinary outfit. They have been going for many, many years, and they do amazing work in terms of Defence contracts. They export throughout the world in very highly technical and innovative areas, particularly for ships—they do a lot of ICT and other work on ships, and their work is extraordinary. Again, I am very proud to have such an innovative, cutting-edge, world-class organisation in my electorate.
For some businesses, the assurance needed to begin exporting for the very first time comes from the EMDG scheme. For businesses already in the exporting game, EMDGs can provide support to investigate new markets, to maintain visibility in overseas markets and, most importantly, to develop key relationships. Those opposite are often critical of governments providing financial assistance to business, and this is demonstrated not only in their rhetoric but in their actions. But these grants are a wonderful example of how providing financial assistance to organisations can be instrumental in supporting jobs and growth right here in Australia. I am glad that, on this occasion at least, those opposite can see this benefit. Some of the comments that have been made by businesses that have received these grants include: 'The EMDG program has been a huge help for our company, and we have grown in size and credibility'; 'The EMDG has been instrumental in assisting our company's growth'; and 'Since signing on to the EMDG program our employment numbers have grown from 19 to 40 people, and we have had 10 years of double digit growth', which is an extraordinary achievement.
Many aspects of the amendments we are debating here today are good. They will help simplify the EMDGs and make the program more efficient. Labor is pleased that the government has adopted several of the measures contained in the amendment bill that we introduced last year. These include increasing the maximum number of grants per applicant to eight, preventing the payment of grants to applicants engaging an EMDG consultant who is assessed as not being a fit and proper person, and enabling grants to be paid more quickly where a grant is determined before 1 July following the balance distribution.
However, there are other amendments that Labor would have liked to see included in this amendment bill. Key amongst them is Labor's previously proposed incentive to export to Asia—to our region—especially in light of proposed new FTAs in the Asian region that have the potential to open up markets for existing and new export businesses. The government has abandoned these incentives, as it has so many other aspects of Labor's Australia in the Asian century white paper. When the then Prime Minister released the Australia in the Asian century white paper on 28 October 2012, I, like many Australians, was excited. I was excited about the many prospects and opportunities the Asian century offered Australians. I was excited that we were making a strategic and forward-thinking decision to make the most of those opportunities. And I was excited on behalf of the young boys and girls in my electorate who will grow up being Asia-literate, who will be fully engaged in our region, who will have multiple opportunities to study, to live and to work in Asia.
And here I want to talk about a couple of schools in my electorate that are already very Asia-literate. Mawson Primary has next to it an early childhood centre where children from basically one year old right through to school age are learning Chinese at the same time as they learn English. It is a fantastic program. I have been to a number of concerts at the school—all sung in Chinese, with everyone dressed up in little outfits; they are gorgeous. I have also been to a number of their working bees as well as their celebrations of other events. So, we have a fantastic program right here in Canberra—in Mawson, in my electorate— where children from the age of one are learning to be bilingual. It is an incredibly impressive program, and I applaud the work they are doing there. I know the staff are incredibly committed, as are the parents. It is not just a case of these children becoming bilingual; as a result of these small children learning Chinese from a very young age, the parents are encouraged to then go and study Chinese themselves. I have tried to learn Mandarin in the past, as I have tried to learn Arabic and a number of other languages.
My English is not too bad, no—I won't go there! But I know that Mandarin is incredibly challenging, and so I take my hat off to the parents who do make that effort—although there is no way they are going to keep pace with their children—to try to converse with their children in Mandarin as they learn to become completely bilingual from a very young age.
There is also a school in Farrer in my electorate that has a very impressive Japanese language program, and there are a number of other schools in my electorate where the students are learning Indonesian —that is, across Catholic schools, public schools and independent schools. So I would like to think that Canberra is at the cutting edge of bilingualism when it comes to Asian languages, and I know that it is going to set these children up for life in terms of being able to converse freely. The beauty of learning another language—and, as I said, I am not fully conversant in any language—is that, when you are learning another language you gain a good understanding of the culture. So it is not just a case of learning a language and being able to converse with people in the street or with people in business environments; it also gives you an insight into the culture and the history of a country. It gives you a richness that you simply cannot get from just having a visit there or even going to some business meetings there. It gives you, in a way, a window to the soul of the country. That is why I applaud the range of schools in my electorate who are doing amazing work in Bahasa, in Mandarin, in Korean, in Japanese, and in Hindi—my Hindi is not too bad after living in India, but with the others, it was a bad attempt. However, I do fear that as a result of the shift in this bill, that these opportunities will be lost under an Abbott government —in terms of engagement with and a focus on the AsiaPacific region.
Labor recognises that Australia's future prosperity will be underpinned by our engagement with our region, and I wonder about those opposite. Before I entered parliament I had my own public relations outfit, and I had a particular interest in looking at how Australia promoted itself in the region. In 1989 I was awarded a Royce Fellowship to study northern Asian perceptions of Australia's strengths as a manufacturing nation. This provided me with a fantastic opportunity. I was with Austrade for about four or five months, just looking at what they were doing here in Canberra. Then I travelled up to northern Asia: to Japan, to Korea, to Taiwan, to China, and to Hong Kong. I spent time meeting with Austrade officials there, with Australian embassy officials, with Asian business people, with journalists, with universities and with think tanks, getting an understanding of what they thought of Australia as a manufacturing nation.
The reason I wanted to study this particular area, as some in this hall might remember, was because of a study Ross Garnaut did, Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendancy, which looked at trying to boost Australia's presence in the region in terms of manufacturing—to both elaborately and simply transform manufacturers. After I read that study I thought, 'that may be the case, and it is a great aspiration', but I was particularly keen to look at what the actual perceptions of Australia as a manufacturing nation were. At that stage the perception in northern Asia was that we were essentially a quarry and a farm. We wanted to broaden that perception. So, I just wanted to get a baseline of what the perception was among those opinion makers, business people, journalists, think tanks, and academics.
I continued with my interest in this particular area when I worked with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and was posted to India, in 1996. That year we had a major promotion, right throughout India, that was incredibly complex. We were showcasing Australia as a sophisticated, modern, manufacturing nation that produced significant technological work and major innovation. It was designed to show that we were more than just a quarry and a farm, and to broaden the perception that the Indian community had of Australia. It was designed to deepen the perception and understanding that the Indian community had of Australia, and it was highly successful in changing attitudes. That year-long program, which was very extensive and comprehensive, built on a program we ran in Indonesia in 1994 that I had also participated in. It was also designed to showcase the modern, innovative and technologically advanced Australia —the Australia that was producing world class research, technology and products. That program also worked very well in broadening and deepening the understanding of Indonesians about what Australia was, beyond just being a quarry and a farm.
Those years of my career in DFAT, and working on the Royce study, have highlighted to me how important it is to help out our exporters in the region. That is why this EMDG is so important. Those years also highlighted to me the significant and beneficial role that Austrade does, not just in researching potential markets for exporters, but also in getting a sense of where they will succeed. Trying to export requires a significant investment, so you need to know that your product is going to succeed before you make that big leap of faith, because it is a high risk operation. I take my hat off to those Austrade officials, here in Australia and around the world, who are providing significant support to our exporters, and I thank them for their work. I know that they are incredibly committed to broadening, deepening and growing Australia's export base.
Labor supports this bill, we support these amendments, and we support the EMDGs, because we believe there is a role for government to contribute to Australia's successful engagement with the world—through exporting the remarkable skills and innovation, and the goods of our hardworking men and women. However, we do not support the government's indifference to our region. Ignoring the incentives to focus on our region is a mistake. The Asian century is here, it cannot be sent to the archives, and we need to be ready.