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Monday, 6 December 1999
Page: 12811


Mr HAWKER —My question is to the Minister for Trade. Could he advise us of the outcomes of the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle and the implications for Australian exporters, particularly farmers and exporters in the electorate of Wannon.


Mr VAILE (Trade) —I thank the member for Wannon for his question. I think all honourable members are well aware that the third ministerial conference of the WTO was held in Seattle last week. It obviously got just as much media coverage here as it did across the rest of the world. Members would also be aware that, at the end of last week, the ministerial conference concluded without the completion of a declaration launching a new round of trade negotiations. Naturally, the government is very disappointed at that outcome. Our delegation went to Seattle with a clear view of supporting the launch of a new, broad-based round of negotiations focused on gaining better market access across the world and across the critical sectors of Australia's exporting industries. We maintained from the outset that the built-in agenda of agriculture and services should have been the core of the next round of negotiations, and to that end we were prepared to support industrials.

Contrary to a lot of the reporting in the media that the main cause of the breakdown at the end of the week was the demonstrations and riots in Seattle, I think the reasons run a little bit deeper than that. They go to the issue of an overly ambitious agenda that some countries were running. They wanted to inject extra issues into the agenda such as investment, labour standards, the environment and government procurement competition, which overloaded the agenda. There was not the opportunity to do enough preparatory work in Geneva before they got to Seattle to cope with that.

Along with that, a lot of commentators reflected on the alleged inadequate organisation by the host country, the United States. In some areas of the whole process last week that was certainly left wanting. There was also a focus on, as I say, the lack of agreement on text coming out of Geneva before it was presented to ministers. There was a concern before we got to Seattle that the stumbling block, if any, would be agriculture. I can report that that was not the case. The agriculture text, which we spent an entire night and day in the Green Room negotiating, was all but completed. The EU was going to sign off on that text subject to seeing what happened to their agenda as far as investment was concerned. So it was these other issues that distracted the attention of the meeting that caused the suspension of the conference at the end of the week without there being a ministerial declaration launching a round. The excessive emphasis by the United States on labour standards, despite determined resistance by developing economies, certainly did not assist the process as the week went on.

The bottom line is that there was significant progress made last week with regard to where we are going to be next year. There is a built-in agenda for next year for negotiations on agriculture and services. The director-general said that the agenda and the progress that was made last week will be frozen, and that is the point from which the negotiations will begin, particularly on agriculture, next year. We need to ensure that that is the case when they return to Geneva and debriefings take place on the outcomes of last week. We need to recognise that this is now an organisation that has a membership of 135 countries of very diverse and different backgrounds and economies—the rich and the poor, the developed, the developing and the least developed economies of the world—all trying to come to consensus about the best path forward in terms of trade liberalisation. Our government remains committed to the policies that we espoused on trade liberalisation.

We believe that the only way forward for Australian exporters is to continue to drive the argument for better market access. We intend to continue to prosecute that case as energetically as we possibly can. We will be doing that in the future both within the WT0 and the multilateral framework, given that we have a mandated agenda for agriculture and services to begin negotiations next year. We will be prosecuting that case at a regional level in forums such as APEC—we will be hosting the APEC Ministerial Council meeting next year—and also on a bilateral basis, particularly in regard to strengthening the relationship within our region. The regional economies seem to be returning to a better economic state of affairs, and so are our exports into the region, as the Prime Minister said yesterday on the Sunday program. There has been a healthy 16 per cent growth in food exports to Asia in the September quarter. Total food exports are now 12.5 per cent above what they were in the September quarter 1997, and that was at the start of the crisis. We continue to focus our energies on pushing ahead with that agenda. The downside as far as Australia's exporters are concerned is that the multilateral negotiations may not be launched for another 12 months, and so we are marking time. There is no slip backwards. There is no slippage. We are looking forward to prosecuting that market access case to get a better set of outcomes for our exporters, and we will continue to do so.

I must say in conclusion that the Australian delegation and the private sector NGOs who were working with us in Geneva also did an outstanding job in working the corridors both day and night and achieving the significant progress that we did. That includes the representative of the opposition who came with us and worked very closely and in concert with the government delegation there. We look forward to taking up those mandated negotiations at the beginning of next year on agriculture and services.