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Tuesday, 3 August 2004
Page: 25406

Senator FERRIS (4:31 PM) —Earlier in my speech, I was discussing multilateral versus bilateral trading arrangements and I was making the point that a number of witnesses to our inquiry raised the issue of whether or not the bilateral free trade agreement with the United States would undermine our capacity to successfully negotiate multilateral trade arrangements in the future. I posed two questions: does the negotiation of this free trade agreement with the United States—and others with Singapore and Thailand—help or hinder our position within the current round of WTO multilateral trade negotiations; and what would be the impact of this agreement on Australia's position in the Cairns Group of fair trading agricultural exporting economies? I am proud to say that the Cairns Group was formed when I was working at the National Farmers Federation, which has always been a very strong supporter of the Cairns Group.

This was a very interesting academic debate and one that I was pleased to take part in, but by far the most compelling evidence presented to the committee came not from academics or theorists but from those with direct experience at the coalface of international trade negotiations. Mr Bruce Gosper, First Assistant Secretary of Australia's Office of Trade Negotiations, told the committee:

I cannot think off the top of my head of any Cairns Group member that is not part of a preferential trade arrangement or negotiating one—most of them are negotiating several. The Cairns Group continues to operate very effectively. It had a very successful meeting in February this year in Costa Rica at which this issue was not raised, either directly or indirectly.

The highly respected trade analyst Mr Alan Oxley, who has extensive experience in international trade negotiations, provided another compelling statement to the committee in response to a question from Senator Cook. He said:

You asked ... what would be the downside for Australia if we rejected the agreement. We would probably be regarded as the most bizarre country in the world for having rejected a free trade agreement with the world's biggest economy—an agreement that would actually give us access in agriculture, which is one of the most difficult areas, notwithstanding the fact that it is not perfect—when many other countries are lining up to have an agreement with them. I honestly do not know how any serious Australian government could justify that to the world at large.

Mr Peter Corish, the president of the National Farmers Federation, told the committee:

As I said in my opening comments, we have not seen any evidence of a negative reaction to either the reputation or the credibility of the Cairns Group or to Australia's general credibility and reputation in the WTO process. I say that because, since the conclusion of the FTA negotiations, there has been a Cairns Group ministerial meeting also attended by a number of Cairns Group farm leaders in Costa Rica. Certainly no negative comments were made to any of our farm leaders there nor, as we understand it, to the ministerial group about our negotiated agreement between Australia and the United States.

There we have it: three highly respected individuals representing specific areas of expertise commenting positively on the operation of a bilateral agreement in relation to criticism about multilateral arrangements and how they might be affected by the signing of this agreement.

I turn to quarantine, an issue which was very significant in the inquiry carried out by the Senate committee and the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. There were some quite irresponsible assertions presented to the committee which claimed that in some way Australia's strict science-based quarantine system would be compromised by the agreement. Having thoroughly examined these assertions, I can clearly and unambiguously inform the Senate that it is now clear that they were nothing more than that—simply assertions. They were not based on fact, and they were not supported by any empirical evidence.

On this issue, Ms Virginia Greville, Special International Agricultural Adviser from the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, told the committee on May 18:

The best evidence is the text that has been negotiated. It explicitly preserves and protects the quarantine processes of each jurisdiction. Our import risk analysis process is well documented and, as you know, transparent and challengeable at a variety of points along the way.

Mr Acting Deputy President Cherry, I think that you and I—as members of the Senate committee that is hearing some of these challenges for apples, bananas and pork—can attest to that transparent and contestable process. Ms Greville went on to say:

That has been explicitly preserved, as has the US's system, and all that the text deals with is enhanced technical cooperation and exchange during that process ... At no point have we changed the outcome, sped up or fast-tracked any IRA process ...

I thank Ms Greville for her quite substantial expertise that was made available to the committee during its inquiry. In relation to the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Matters and the Standing Technical Working Group on Animal and Plant Health Matters that will be created under chapter 7 of the FTA, Ms Greville advised:

What it will not do is have any impact on our level of protection or our conservative quarantine regime or our standards, no matter what they say.

These statements were reinforced by Mr Andy Stoler, the Executive Director of the Institute for International Business, Economics and Law at the University of Adelaide—a very skilled and experienced trade negotiator. He said:

There is nothing that one can find anywhere in the text of this agreement that suggests that either side has the slightest intention of moving away from scientifically based risk assessment procedures as the basis for quarantine actions. You will not find anything in the text. You will find references to facilitating trade to the greatest extent possible while preserving the rights of the parties to protect animal and plant life or health but nowhere will you find the suggestion that we are going to abandon that concept.

In conclusion, the FTA will benefit all sections of the Australian economy. I have focused my remarks today on what it will mean for Australia's primary industries because this is a focus of interest for me. Trade liberalisation, both multilateral and bilateral, has served Australian industry very well, increasing productivity and competitiveness across all sectors. The FTA will deliver real economic benefits and will secure for Australia greater access to the world's largest and most powerful economy. It will ensure Australia has the capacity to compete against other suppliers from Canada, Mexico and other countries which currently enjoy preferential access to the US market. All major sectors of the Australian economy stand to benefit from the free trade agreement.

I state clearly and unambiguously to the Senate that assertions that this agreement will impact on Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme prices are simply groundless. These claims are not supported by the text of the agreement and are not supported by any genuine evidence. When examined by the select committee—and, incidentally, the treaties committee—they did not stand up to scrutiny. Furthermore, many of the claims that have been made in relation to intellectual property law changes introduced by this agreement are, in fact, baseless and wrong. Far from being detrimental, the intellectual property provisions of the agreement will provide substantial benefit to Australia's creative industries, which must compete within a global entertainment market.

Greater symmetry between Australian and US laws will provide the certainty needed to produce greater investment in Australia's creative talents and will deliver substantially improved growth and employment. I urge all senators who believe in trade, who believe in promoting export opportunities for our very valuable primary and secondary industries, and who believe in creating—ultimately—a wealthier and more economically secure Australia to support this legislation.