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Tuesday, 4 November 2003
Page: 21915

Mr TOLLNER (2:31 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Trade. Would the minister update the House on the conclusion of negotiations for the free trade agreement with Thailand? What will this agreement mean for Australia's agricultural exports?

Mr VAILE (Minister for Trade) —I thank the member for Solomon for his question. Obviously, representing the very important part of Australia in the Northern Territory that is the closest to South-East Asia, he takes a very keen interest in what we are doing in actively engaging South-East Asian countries.

The SPEAKER —I warn the member for Grayndler!

Mr VAILE —I should indicate at the outset that, following the conclusion of negotiations with Thailand and the announcement of the free trade agreement with Thailand, Australia is in the interesting position of being the only developed country that has negotiated free trade agreements with two of the ASEAN countries. The opposition should recognise and reflect on that in light of some of the comments that some members of the opposition run with in regard to our relationship with East Asia and particularly South-East Asia. We now have a free trade agreement in place with Singapore and with Thailand, and a closer economic partnership agreement in place with the 10 ASEAN countries.

Mr Wilkie —Why aren't we are a member?

The SPEAKER —The member for Swan is warned!

Mr VAILE —Also, interestingly, during the visit to Australia by President Hu Jintao of China, we signed the economic framework with China. But the member for Solomon asked about the relevance of this agreement for agriculture. Of course, agriculture was at the centre of the negotiations and will significantly benefit, particularly with regard to exports out of the Northern Territory, where there will be significant reductions in the tariff on live cattle exports and on exports of fresh fruit and vegetables that go out of the Northern Territory into many South-East Asian markets.

Mr VAILE —Overall, for the information of the member for Rankin, more than 50 per cent of the 5,000 tariff lines that the Thais have had in place will be eliminated completely on entry into force. There will be new opportunities, particularly for the dairy sector—and we know that that industry has been struggling in recent times. We will see an immediate increase of additional quota for skim milk powder out of Australia of 2,200 tonnes for the Australian dairy industry, and the elimination of tariffs on four major lines of dairy products. We will see the elimination of tariffs on wheat, barley, rye and oats. Importantly, into a South-East Asian market, we will see the elimination of tariffs and tariff rate quotas on rice. It was a great achievement being able to export rice back into Japan; we are now going to be able to export rice back into Thailand from Australia, all as a result of the negotiations on this agreement.

Industry representatives have been quite glowing in their praise of the outcome of this agreement. SunRice, the Australian rice exporter, has said:

This free trade agreement saw the removal of all quotas for Australian rice exports to Thailand. Australia's rice industry, a strong advocate for the removal of all restrictions to free trade, welcomes the agreement as a step in the right direction.

Allan Burgess, who heads up the dairy industry in Australia, has said:

It offers some immediate commercial advantages for the Australian dairy industry; it offers an opportunity to share in the growth of one of our most dynamic neighbours ...

There has also been some enlightened comment from the spokesman from the Australian Labor Party, Senator Conroy. Senator Conroy has said:

Labor welcomes this free trade agreement with Thailand.

It will be of significant benefit to many Australian industries, including ... some of our rural and agricultural producers.

Also on The Insiders program on the weekend Senator Conroy went as far as saying that, in other words—

The SPEAKER —The member for Rankin is warned!

Mr VAILE —because the WTO has moved onto a bit of a slower track, he supports the government's policy of competitive liberalisation and pursuing bilateral agreements as we are. He can see where there are going to be benefits delivered to Australian exporters, which is much more than his predecessor was prepared to concede in that portfolio responsibility.