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Wednesday, 13 October 1999
Page: 11472


Mr St CLAIR —My question is addressed to the Minister for Trade. Would the minister advise the House of progress being made to improve Australia's trading position in South-East Asia? How does this reflect on our standing among our regional partners?


Mr VAILE (Trade) —I thank the honourable member for New England for his question. It is a very serious question. Through the good efforts of our government and the Australian people, we have managed to quarantine the Australian economy from the economic downturn in Asia. We are actively engaging in building and strengthening our relationship with our South-East Asian neighbours.

Having just returned last week from talks between the trade ministers from the ASEAN countries and the Australian and New Zealand trade ministers, I can report that our relationship with our regional partners is in very good order and is very strong. This region accounts for about 12 per cent of our total trade efforts. Prior to the economic downturn in South-East Asia, it had been experiencing about 10 per year growth per year.

Our ASEAN neighbours fully recognise the importance of strengthening our relationship, particularly the trade relationship with Australia. Highlighting this, the Singapore meeting a week and a half ago agreed to establish a task force to undertake a feasibility study into the possibility of establishing a free trade agreement between the ASEAN nations and Australia and New Zealand, being the CER countries. The high level task force will be headed by the former Prime Minister of the Philippines, Mr Cesar Virata.

The concept of a free trade area is strongly supported by the Australian Industry Group, who have welcomed its potential to deliver additional market access for our exporters. In fact, they engaged an independent economic analysis of what benefits would flow to the Australian economy. That modelling showed that the Australian economy would stand to benefit by more than $8 billion a year by that sort of involvement in the region. They put out a press release which said:

The Australian Industry Group congratulates the minister on this ground-breaking announcement and looks forward to working closely with the task force to progress this important development in building closer linkages with the region.

I accept those congratulations on behalf of the government. This agreement clearly shows that our ASEAN neighbours recognise the very important role that Australia is playing in developing a more prosperous and secure region in which we live. We will continue to work with our ASEAN neighbours in strengthening that relationship.