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Monday, 7 November 2005
Page: 1


Mr BAIRD (12:31 PM) —On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the Trade Subcommittee’s report entitled Australia’s free trade agreements with Singapore, Thailand and the United States: progress to date and lessons for the future.

Ordered that the report be made a parliamentary paper.


Mr BAIRD —On behalf of the Trade Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I wish to make some brief comments on the committee’s report, Australia’s free trade agreements with Singapore, Thailand and the United States: progress to date and lessons for the future. In August this year, the committee convened a half-day hearing, in the form of a roundtable, to review the progress of Australia’s free trade agreements, FTAs, with Singapore, Thailand and the United States. The review was timely because, although these agreements have been in force for a short time, the Singapore agreement since July 2003 and the other two since January 2005, Australia is conducting negotiations on several other free trade agreements. The committee hoped the inquiry would identify issues arising from the current agreements that could assist with negotiating and implementing future FTAs.

The roundtable discussion covered negotiations and consultations, the impact on trade and on business and industry and lessons learned. The participants represented government, business and industry, unions and academia. The main message to emerge from the hearing was that it is too early to assess the impact of the agreements with Singapore, Thailand and the United States and that the effects of some changes under each FTA could take five to 10 years to become apparent. The committee also heard that there are other difficulties in assessing the performance of FTAs. Measures such as exports and imports, for example, were seen as unreliable because they can be affected by factors unrelated to free trade agreements, such as exchange rate variations and one-off or temporary events such as cancelled wheat shipments.

Despite the difficulty of assessing the FTAs, the participants of the roundtable were largely satisfied with the conduct of negotiations and the performance of the FTAs to date. They also identified early benefits of the agreements, in particular increased interest from Australian exporters in doing business in Singapore, Thailand and the United States. Although the time frame might be longer than some had expected, participants were generally confident that the agreements would result in tangible benefits for Australian business, industry and consumers. One of the reasons for this confidence was that free trade agreements were viewed as living rather than fixed agreements by virtue of provisions that enable aspects of each agreement to be reviewed and improved over time. The need to include such provisions in future FTAs was regarded as one of the most important lessons to take from the free trade agreements with Singapore, Thailand and the US.

In closing, I am grateful to all those who gave evidence to the inquiry and my colleagues who participated in the event. I am particularly grateful to Kate Burton, who has resigned from her position as Secretary of the Trade Subcommittee and will be taking up a new position, in fact, with one of the members opposite in his office in Tasmania. Kate has done an outstanding job as secretary of the committee. She is a very bright lady and I wish her well in her future career. Again, I thank my colleagues for their participation in this review. I commend the report to the House.