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Tuesday, 3 August 2004
Page: 25344

Senator FERRIS (1:52 PM) —I have very good news for Senator Conroy. He will be very interested to hear that the President of the United States, George Bush, is due to sign the free trade agreement bill at 9.30 tomorrow, Washington time. Senator Conroy will be very pleased to know that the concerns he raised in his speech in relation to President Bush will be allayed tomorrow.

It is with a great sense of optimism that I rise to speak on the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004 that will bring into effect the free trade agreement between Australia and the United States from 1 January next year. This agreement, as we all now know, will bring significant benefits to the Australian economy for many years to come and for many reasons. I would like to mention just two of them today in the short time I have before question time. First of all, it provides export opportunities for Australia's farmers, for our industry and for Australia's service providers. Second, it will result in increased foreign investment in Australia's economy, something that I was interested to hear Premier Beattie outlining on a television program late last week as he appealed to the opposition—successfully, it transpires—to agree to this free trade agreement. That foreign investment will enable many of our fledgling industries to grow significantly in the years ahead.

If you believe in trade, if you believe in opening markets and providing opportunities for primary producers and for others and if you believe in supporting local industries, both big and small, through greater investment, then you will also be optimistic about this agreement which provides Australia with access to the world's largest economy. The Senate Select Committee on the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the United States of America, of which I was a member, carried out a thorough, exhaustive and transparent examination of the agreement. It was held concurrently with another thorough, exhaustive and transparent inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, chaired by my South Australian colleague the member for Boothby. So I can state at the outset that anyone who continues to suggest that there has not been a proper parliamentary scrutiny of this agreement is, frankly, deluding themselves. At this point can I say how much senators on this side wish the chair of the select committee, Senator Peter Cook, well for the serious surgery he is undergoing right at this time.

As a strong advocate for Australian agriculture, I can tell the Senate that the free trade agreement gives Australia's primary producers a significant boost in the US market. Two-thirds of all agricultural tariffs, including on lamb, on sheepmeat, on wine, on a range of horticultural products and on seafood will be eliminated immediately, and a further nine per cent will be cut to zero within four years. Witness after witness at our select committee outlined these benefits and the positive message conveyed to primary industries. The Australian Dairy Industry Council told our committee:

The long-term prosperity of the Australian dairy industry is linked to export markets and international market access.

... ... ...

The new access offers Australian manufacturers a unique opportunity to grow demand for dairy in the United States, with innovative customer tailored products, before our competitors can secure increased access via either regional agreements or multilaterally through the WTO.

They went on to say:

This will directly feed into greater exports, given the mature domestic market and sustainable downstream job creation in rural and regional communities where the dairy industry operates.

That is where new jobs are desperately needed. The Australian Seafood Council agreed. Their analysis that was presented to our committee of inquiry showed that 48 American tariffs plus some other rates of duty expressed in cents per kilo are all abolished from 1 January next year under this agreement. They disappear from day one. Horticulture Australia had the same story; they also told the committee that, as it stands at the moment, 98 per cent of Australian fresh exports into the United States face tariffs but that, under the agreement struck so far, 99 per cent would be tariff free immediately and the remaining tariffs would be eliminated over a transition period. That does go out, in some cases, to 18 years but it is conceded that it is a significant plus for the industry.

The Tuna Boat Owners Association told the committee the same thing. They said they needed volume to survive. They have no substantial tariff protection for products coming into Australia and therefore they need global volume to survive. The United States and Europe have always been shut to the Australian tuna industry because of a 35 per cent tariff into the United States and a 25 per cent tariff into the European Union. So this will be the first significant opportunity the Australian tuna industry and seafood industry—industries so important to the South Australian economy—will have to get into the United States. As they told the committee, they did not expect such a positive outcome so early. One of the topics that were raised with us was the multilateral versus bilateral philosophical approach to trade. It was discussed extensively in the committee because, of course, Senator Peter Cook, the chair of the committee, is an avowed multilateralist. The committee was very interested to address this matter. When I continue my remarks, I will outline the issue.

Debate interrupted.