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Wednesday, 16 June 2010
Page: 5628

Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (11:01 AM) —Obviously, I must respond to some of the jibes coming from the minister. He has frequently been a critic of the fact that there were no satisfactory arrangements for sugar included in the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. He said that sort of thing would never happen under him and then he signed up to the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, which delivered nothing for sugar. So I think the rhetoric there is very empty. He criticised us for giving China market economy status. The current government has done it for Vietnam, if you please. So the pot is very much calling the kettle black.

I also remind the Committee that this government sacrificed the wheat single desk on the grounds that it was somehow or other going to lead to better international trade agreements. Australian wheat growers are already paying a very heavy price for the abolition of the Australian organised wheat marketing arrangements. It is already costing this country hundreds of millions of dollars and we have had absolutely nothing in return. There have been no concessions whatsoever from any other country in response to the so-called free trade advantages that there would be as a result of getting rid of the organised marketing arrangements for wheat. What we do know is that Australian growers have lost heavily; the reputation of Australian wheat is in decline; many of our major markets have been lost to countries like Canada, which still have organised marketing arrangements; and in reality the future for the Australian grain-growing industry is quite perilous at present.

I note that the government has at long last resumed discussions in relation to the Australia-China free trade agreement, after 14 months when not even a single meeting was held. There certainly has been very little progress there. The last meeting on the Australia-Japan free trade agreement was in April this year. Those negotiations were progressing very well but seem to have slowed. I acknowledge that part of the reason for that will be changes of government in Japan, but it is disappointing that that agreement, which was progressing so well, seems also to have slowed.

Indeed, I note that the government is now turning its attention to a new free trade agreement involving a whole range of countries which we already have agreements with. The proposed new trans-pacific partnership agreement, involving Brunei, Dar es Salaam, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, is already in place between those countries. Australia, of course, already has FTAs with Chile, New Zealand and Singapore. We do not have all that much trade with Brunei, and I am not sure that signing this agreement will make all that much difference. The other countries that are involved in negotiations include the United States, where we have an FTA; Peru, where one is likely to be achieved quite quickly if that is our objective; and Vietnam, where there are negotiations going on as well.

It seems to me that it is very difficult to find any economic benefit for Australia in this arrangement. It would be far better for us to get an FTA with China or a modernised one with Japan than to have a new deal which gives us access into the markets of Brunei but probably nowhere else that is outside the existing agreement—especially if these agreements simply restate concessions that have already been given in bilateral or other multilateral agreements. This should be about quality and not quantity. I am not necessarily criticising this as an objective that may be around, but let me say that it would be far better for Australia to conclude a constructive, first-class, quality agreement with China—or, for that matter, Vietnam, or, for that matter, Peru—than to be involved in a multilateral agreement of this nature which will undoubtedly take resources away from higher priority agreements.

Trade is important and I think that some of the rhetoric and the criticism of the minister is a little unfair and unjust, and it sounds particularly hollow because he criticised the previous government for what he has done himself again and again and again. In reality the major agreement concluded in his time—the ASEAN FTA—has certainly led to little benefit for Australian producers but open markets for those countries into Australia.