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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21305

Mr TOLLNER (3:08 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Trade. Would the minister inform the House of the strength of the economic relationships between Australia and the ASEAN countries? What is the minister doing to further strengthen these relationships?

Dr Emerson —That's the market we're going to get locked out of.

Mr VAILE (Minister for Trade) —I thank the member for Solomon for his question, and I recognise his very keen interest, coming from Darwin, in the relationship we have with all 10 South-East Asian countries. I recognise, particularly, those immediately to the north that we have very strong trading relationships with. Given that we have a delegation in the gallery from Indonesia, I recognise the very strong trading relationship that we have with Indonesia. As I was getting to my feet, I heard the interjection from the member for Rankin which only indicates how little he really knows.

The relationship with the ASEAN countries is in very good shape at the moment, both on a bilateral basis, with the individual members of the ASEAN group, and collectively. It is a well-known fact that in September 2002 Australia signed a closer economic partnership agreement with the 10 ASEAN countries—something that no other country has been able to achieve thus far. Although there are negotiations between ASEAN and the North Asian countries, to date nothing has been concluded. At the end of 2002, Australia also signed a free trade agreement with Singapore, delivering substantial benefits to our services sector. We are at the moment involved in a negotiation with Thailand, with an ambition to conclude that negotiation by the end of this year, if not sooner. If that negotiation with Thailand is concluded this year, Australia will be the first country to have two free trade agreements with South-East Asian countries. We will be the first amongst the countries in North Asia, in this region and across the Pacific and the Americas to do that, which is very important to note.

The strength of the relationship is indicated in the trade that is done with the South-East Asian countries. Twelve per cent of Australia's exports go to South-East Asia—some $13.8 billion worth of exports alone—let alone the two-way trade and investment. This was pointed out very clearly, I might add, in an interview that was conducted on the 7.30 Report with the Indonesian Minister for Industry and Trade, who is a very good friend of Australia. Minister Rini Soewandi was interviewed by Kerry O'Brien. There were the usual questions that you would expect to come from Kerry O'Brien on relationships with East Asia, but Minister Soewandi handled those questions extremely well. I will have the opportunity at the end of this week to convey that sentiment to her. Repeating a comment that often comes from the other side of politics and other parts, Kerry O'Brien made the usual claim that Australia seems to many in Asia to be `a transplant from another region'. But in her response the minister defended the relationship with Australia, saying:

... we feel that Australia and New Zealand are also close to ASEAN. We do need to strengthen closer economic relations and Indonesia and Australia and New Zealand are trying to work out also a comprehensive closer economic partnership and see the possibilities of having closer and better trade relations.

After a further question from Kerry O'Brien, when he persisted in saying that Australia was not economically engaged with ASEAN, Rini disagreed with him. She said:

... Australia and New Zealand is a very important component of the South-East Asian atmosphere.

That is from a minister who is very active and very high up in the Indonesian administration, and very influential in South-East Asia. I might add that she is a very close friend of Australia. I think her daughter is attending the University of Melbourne. Along with about 100,000 other students from South-East Asia who study in Australia, it indicates the strength of the relationship between Australia and the ASEAN countries.