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Thursday, 11 March 2004
Page: 21393


Senator CONROY (2:41 PM) —My question is to Senator Minchin, the Minister representing the Treasurer. Is the minister aware of comments in today's Australian Financial Review by Mr Bill Carmichael, a former chairman of the Industries Assistance Commission, that with regard to the Australia-US FTA:

There is considerable public uncertainty about the outcome for Australia despite (perhaps because of) the spin being placed on it by those whose job it is to sell the agreement.

... ... ...

That is why the Productivity Commission must now be asked to provide a public assessment, at arm's length from the spin being placed on the outcome for Australia.

Does the minister agree with Mr Carmichael's comments? When will the government refer the deal to the Productivity Commission for an arm's length assessment of whether it is in Australia's national interest?


Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —I have not seen Mr Carmichael's comments, but I will look at them after question time and read them with interest. I am a great supporter of the Productivity Commission; I think it does great work. What staggers me is the continued opposition by the Labor Party to what is one of the most enormous and significant opportunities this country has ever been handed. It is quite extraordinary that the greatest and strongest economy in the world has decided to offer to Australia—alone among developed countries—a bilateral free trade agreement of the significance and size of the one that it has. It would be an extraordinary tragedy for Australia if as a result of this opposition's game playing and cynical political opportunism Australia was to say to the greatest economy the world has ever seen, `Thanks but no thanks.' What an extraordinary legacy we would hand to our children if we were to slap the United States in the face and say, `Thanks for the offer, fellas, but we do not want your free trade agreement.' What a dreadful outcome for Australia that would be, and what a dreadful result of the opposition playing games with this most important agreement it would be.

The benefits to Australia are manifest. I have said on many occasions, as a senator for South Australia, that the benefits for my state are manifest. It will be on the heads of those in the opposition if they deny to South Australians the extraordinary benefits that will accrue to companies like Holden, which will be able to export their utes to that market without the 25 per cent tariff; to the workers of Port Lincoln Tuna Processors, who will be able to export their canned processed tuna into that market without the 35 per cent tariff that now applies; to the wine industry, which will be able to export wine to that vast market without the 11 per cent tariff that currently applies; and to companies like Codan, which will have access to the $250 billion US government procurement market that is now much tougher to get into.

This is a huge opportunity for Australia. All that we can argue about is the extent of the benefit. It is impossible in logic to say that there can be any disadvantage to Australia by entering into this agreement. It is an extraordinary proposition to put that there could be any disadvantage. All that we can argue about is the size of the benefit to Australia. The size of the benefit to Australia will be a function of the dynamism, inventiveness and entrepreneurship of the Australian companies that stand to benefit from the opportunities that will be given to them to enter this market in a way they have not been able to do before.

We are getting the Centre for International Economics to do a study. They are the appropriate body; they did the original study. They are going to have a look and do an appropriate study and try to model benefits. But, as many economists have said in many columns on this issue, in trying to measure the net benefit you are dealing with the dynamics of the entrepreneurial reaction by Australian business to the opportunities that are going to be offered to them—the extent to which a company like Holden will be able to market its products in America without that 25 per cent tariff and companies like Codan, tuna processors and the wine industry. All of these great companies will now have the door open to them in a way that it has not been open before. The extent of the benefit will be a function of that. We want to get off the back of the companies and give them the greatest opportunity to take advantage of the opportunities that will present to them as a result of this great agreement, and be it on the heads of the Labor Party if they sink this great agreement with their cynical opportunism.


Senator CONROY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. What have you got to hide? If it is as good as you say it is, give it to the Productivity Commission. Is the minister also aware of comments by Mr Carmichael about the appointment of CIE, which came up with the initial $4 billion figure, to now model the final deal? Mr Carmichael said:

It has to be asked whether the government's motivation is one of controlling the information available to us so that nothing gets in the way of the spin it is placing on the agreement.

Minister, why has the government appointed CIE to model the final deal and why are you so afraid of referring it to the Productivity Commission for its independent assessment?


Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —It is an immediate and unfortunate slur upon CIE to suggest that it is not going to provide an independent analysis of this agreement. As I have said, I have great respect for the Productivity Commission, but CIE did the original study. It is obviously sensible and appropriate to now give it the full text of the agreement and for it to provide us with the modelling to determine the extent of the benefit. This is a highly reputable organisation, a great economic institute, which will do an outstanding, professional, independent job in measuring the extent of the benefit to Australia of this great agreement.