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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 2076

Mr BARRESI (2:49 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Trade. Would the minister inform the House how bilateral free trade agreements such as the Australia-United States free trade agreement can help the Australian economy and contribute to jobs growth? Are there any alternative policies?

Mr VAILE (Minister for Trade) —I thank the honourable member for Deakin for his question. We have always held that opening up opportunities in the markets of the world through bilateral negotiations, such as the free trade agreement we have concluded with the United States, would help the economy of Australia and generate more jobs. It has been forecast that the United States free trade agreement, when in full force, will generate 30,000 new jobs in the Australian economy. That certainly is a worthwhile objective for any government and country to pursue. If you add that to our government's track record over the last eight years of adding 1.3 million jobs to the Australian economy, it is a very important objective. And that goes for the other bilateral negotiations that we have pursued. Of course, it has been a hallmark of the government's trade policy to pursue our bilateral agenda as well as maintaining energy and focus on multilateral arrangements through the World Trade Organisation.

When our government was elected in 1996, we had to start repairing the damage to our relationship with Malaysia that had been done by the Keating government. It has taken a number of years, but the success of that work was evident the week before last, when I announced that Australia and Malaysia will conduct parallel scoping studies on a possible free trade agreement between our two countries. Malaysia is a very important trading partner of Australia in South-East Asia, and at last we are getting that relationship moving seriously forward. This would not have been possible under a Labor government. This comes just months after the ASEAN economic ministers proposed a possible free trade agreement between the ASEAN countries, Australia and New Zealand. In July this year we signed a free trade agreement with Thailand which is scheduled to enter into force early in 2005. Given union opposition, this would not have been possible under a Labor government.

In July 2003 Australia's free trade agreement with Singapore came into force and it was the second only free trade agreement in Australia's history. Already that agreement is delivering benefits to many exporting businesses in Australia. In July 2003 we concluded a trade and economic framework with Japan, our largest export market. In October 2003 we began the scoping study on a free trade agreement with China, the fastest-growing economy in the world. In June this year the United Arab Emirates agreed to pursue a free trade agreement with Australia.

What has the Labor Party done for trade? Labor's policy remains with an absolute focus on the multilateral system. None of those achievements would have been possible under a Labor government in Australia. Labor has never negotiated a bilateral free trade agreement. Labor's trade policy is dictated to it by the union movement, as its division over the US free trade agreement clearly indicates. Job creation through trade liberalisation is a hallmark of the coalition government in the eight years we have been in office. The union opposition to trade liberalisation is a hallmark of Labor's policy in this area. The ALP is bought and paid for by the union movement. The ALP could never have negotiated the bilateral agreements that the coalition in government has done over the course of the last eight years and will continue to do in the next term in office.