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Monday, 9 December 2002
Page: 7457

Senator COOK (4:30 PM) —On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I wish to make an oral presentation by way of a report entitled Annual review of Australia and the World Trade Organisation and present the Hansard record of proceedings and a list of exhibits presented to the committee. I rise to make a statement on behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade about the committee's ongoing scrutiny of the World Trade Organisation. In the last parliament the joint committee resolved that in the context of the examination of the annual report of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and in order to allow for continuous and cumulative parliamentary scrutiny of the WTO, the Trade Subcommittee should institute an annual one-day public hearing on the WTO with specific reference to its progress towards trade liberalisation and the implications of its activities for Australia.

The committee was of the view that the parliament should take an active role in reviewing the manner in which Australia engages with the multilateral trading system managed by the WTO. Moreover, with the international desire to reach agreement on a new negotiating round at the Doha ministerial meeting in November last year, and given the scuttled 1999 Seattle ministerial, an annual parliamentary review of the WTO had an added significance. The former Director-General of the WTO, the Hon. Mike Moore, in the lead-up to Doha, stressed that openness, fairness and predictability are at the heart of the multilateral trading system. He emphasised the vital role that parliamentarians have to play in bringing international organisations and people closer together and holding the WTO and governments accountable. He said:

Parliamentarians need to engage in the critical global issues and be perceived by the public to be doing so.

Two broad categories define Australia's interest in the WTO—namely, market access and the system of rules and disciplines that is provided by WTO agreements. As a nation we are dependent on international trade, and strong and enforceable international trade rules are of vital importance to us. The World Trade Organisation is the only organisation that sets enforceable international trade rules and provides the best available mechanism for us to gain real improvements across the board in market access for Australian goods and services. In its first annual review hearing, which was held on 23 August 2002, the Trade Subcommittee decided to focus on the prospects of the Doha Round negotiations. The discussions covered market access issues in the key negotiating areas of agriculture, services and industrials, and the issues of intellectual property, trade and environment, and special and differential treatment of developing countries. This last issue is especially important as it allows for capacity building to enable active participation by all member states, particularly developing country member states.

The public hearing was conducted in three sessions. Session 1 provided an overview of the WTO and the Doha Round negotiations; session 2 looked at market access and the negotiations for agriculture, services and industrial products; and session 3 examined the issues of intellectual property, trade and environment, and trade and development. We invited organisations and individuals to give evidence on the issues within the three sessions and received 10 exhibits to the scrutiny process. I would like to present to the Senate the transcript of evidence taken at the review hearing in August and the list of exhibits we received. The Hansard transcript of the hearing can be viewed on our web site:

At this point I would like to place on record the Trade Subcommittee's appreciation of the time the witnesses gave to appear and give evidence at the hearing. The hearing provided a valuable opportunity to review progress on negotiations and to raise and canvass issues of critical importance to Australia in the Doha Development Round. The difficulties facing our agricultural products, particularly dairy and sugar, in the multilateral trade negotiations were discussed. Market access is the No. 1 issue not only for our agriculture but for our services and industrial products as well. Australian agricultural producers also face barriers in the form of export subsidies and trade-distorting domestic supports. The transcript clearly sets out the difficulties we face, notwithstanding the commitment contained in the ministerial declaration launching the Doha Round last November to correct and prevent restrictions in world agricultural markets.

We were told that progress in agriculture is important, not just because agriculture contributes vitally to Australia's export performance and remains the most distorted of all international markets but because progress in agriculture is necessary to ensure progress across the entire round. Unless Australia actively drives the case for change along with our fellow Cairns Group members there will be little fundamental reform. Furthermore, there was discussion on the significant gains in services that are up for GATS negotiations, particularly in the areas of market access and the domestic regulations that support it. The complexity of the area was highlighted by its diverse mix of policies and impediments as well as the need for managing change and the significance of the sequencing of reform for Australia. It was pointed out that, although there are gains at the end, `there are some real tricky dangers in how you get there'.

Evidence presented at the hearing showed the interlocking nature of what is up for negotiation in the Doha Round. Besides the well-scrutinised issue of trade and development linkages, the importance of intersectoral effects was stressed. For instance, the success of the agricultural sector depends on having an efficient service sector in place, and the export of education services online depends on an efficient telecommunications sector being in place. Moreover, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade pointed out that the negotiating dynamics in the WTO dictate that without a big outcome in agriculture there will not be a big outcome in financial services or in telecommunications and other areas.

Parliamentary scrutiny of the WTO and the trade liberalisation negotiations by the Trade Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade are an ongoing process, with another public hearing planned for mid-2003. In this short statement to the Senate, it is not possible to touch on all the issues discussed with the witnesses at the hearing. The committee's transcript of evidence does, however, contain the full details of the issues we covered and the comment and analysis provided by the witnesses in response to our questions. Moreover, the evidence provides for a better understanding of the dynamics and complexity of the World Trade Organisation negotiations, which are due for conclusion by 1 January 2005, and their importance for Australia's future. This importance has been reconfirmed, with Australia having hosted the mini-ministerial meeting of 25 WTO trade ministers in Sydney from 14 to 15 November 2002 to inject political momentum into the Doha Round of trade negotiations.

In conclusion, we have been pleased to provide some parliamentary scrutiny of these important negotiations. Openness and transparency are vital ingredients of our democracy, and for that reason we urge the government to be mindful of the need to keep the parliament, through the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, fully informed of progress in negotiations across all sectors and, if necessary, on a confidential basis.