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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 2

Mr SNOWDON (12:35 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak on the report of the Trade Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade into Australia’s free trade agreements with Singapore, Thailand and the United States. I want to thank the chairman, the member for Cook, for the able work that he does in chairing the Trade Subcommittee. I would also like to thank the participants for providing the committee with their views from their various backgrounds and, of course, to thank the members of the Trade Subcommittee as well as the committee secretariat, Dr Margo Kerley and Dr Kate Burton and the administrative officer, Ms Jessica Butler, for their work. I am sad to see Kate leaving us because I think, as the chairman said, she provided very professional, able support for the committee and was a very good source of advice.

The committee chair has talked about the outcomes of the committee’s hearing and the report’s conclusion that it was too early to assess the effects of Australia’s free trade agreements. Whilst that is true, it is very important, in my view, that we continue to undertake these types of reviews regularly. I say that for a number of reasons. I welcome the committee’s statement in the report that it would hold another roundtable review of the FTAs in 2006. We need to understand in this country that these free trade agreements are an evolving science. Of course, we need to be very certain that we achieve the right balance between bilateral agreements and our multilateral obligations and agreements.

Multilateral negotiations allow all participant countries the opportunity to have their voices heard equally on trade matters. While bilateral agreements can provide a good complement to the multilateral system, Australia must remain focused on and committed to multilateral trade negotiations. There are now fewer than 40 days until the World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in Hong Kong and there is still a great deal to be done to get the US, the EU and other countries to come up with a good outcome.

Mr Hunt —And French farmers.

Mr SNOWDON —And French farmers. It will be tight, but Australia’s trading future depends on a good outcome at the Doha Round and all available trade-negotiating resources, in my view, now must be directed to that end.

Free trade agreements can have an important role to play if they genuinely advance our interests in the World Trade Organisation by freeing up trade right across the board. The first exercise of this, of course, for Australia was the Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relationship signed by the Hawke government as far back as May 1983 and it did that. All goods and services were covered, there were no carve-outs and it was very comprehensive on agriculture. This government, I might say, started off okay with the Singapore free trade agreement—no carve-outs, all sectors covered—but, of course, Singapore had no agricultural interests to defend. I have to say that, from my own observation, the experience has not been so good since.

The Thai free trade agreement gave Australian exports some improved access in agriculture, and in other areas fast-tracked APEC’s Bogor goals and free trade investment for Thailand by 2020. But it did get worse with the US free trade agreement. The complete carve-out of sugar established the untenable precedent that if Australia would agree to exemptions it would not insist on most favoured nation treatment for agriculture. This, in my view, has sent the wrong message to our trading partners that Australia is soft at the crunch point of negotiations, undermining the prospects of comprehensive outcomes in agriculture for future free trade agreements. It would be okay if Australia were getting genuinely improved access right across the board, including agriculture, in these deals, but it is clearly not.

The importance of these annual reviews gives the committee the opportunity to focus on where we are winning and where we are losing. I note that the report talks about winners and losers. Before the free trade agreement with China even started, the government gave up our strongest bargaining chip: recognition of China as a market economy. China knew what they wanted from a free trade agreement—market economy status—and the government gave in to them just to get them to the negotiating table, and we got nothing in return. With the interests of 800 million people living in rural and regional areas, China will be a particularly tough negotiator on agriculture. Australia too must be a tough negotiator with China to ensure a good outcome is achieved for the Australian community. The devil will be in the detail for the China free trade agreement and we need to assess that detail against the national interest before determining our final position on the agreement. The Trade Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade has an important role to play in ensuring that progress of those negotiations is monitored, just as we monitor the performance of the free trade agreements we have already signed with Singapore, Thailand and United States. (Time expired)

The ACTING SPEAKER —The time allotted for statements on this report has expired. Does the member for Cook wish to move a motion in connection with the report to enable it to be debated on a future occasion?