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Wednesday, 10 February 1999
Page: 2312

Mr TIM FISCHER (11:59 AM) —by leave—The `1999 Trade Outcomes and Objectives Statement' comes at a critical time for Australian trade. This year our exports will face a more difficult and challenging international trading environment. Growth prospects for the world economy are subdued and a number of our trading partners in Asia are in recession. But I have every confidence in our exporters' continued ability to look for new opportunities through market diversification strategies, as well as continuing to put in the hard yards in Asia until more favourable trading conditions return.

The government's trade strategy is, of course, closely linked to our larger economic reform agenda, designed to increase Australia's international competitiveness. Our exporters are doing a great job, and full marks to them. They would do an even better one, by the way, if the Senate passes the government's tax reforms.

In 1999 the government will match our exporters' efforts with enhanced trade facilitation and diversification efforts. In a time of global uncertainty, we need to pursue market opportunities at all levels—bilaterally, regionally and multilaterally. We also need to make a frank assessment of our trading performance and prospects, and implement clear, well-focused strategies for overcoming the obstacles which lie ahead. The `1999 Trade Outcomes and Objectives Statement' provides just that. I need not remind honourable members what is at stake here—it is about Australian jobs and continued economic growth, pure and simple.

As outlined in the statement, exports of goods and services totalled a record $114.2 billion in the last financial year—an increase of 8.4 per cent over the previous year. This was an excellent result. However, consistent with government predictions, the difficult global economic climate cut in more noticeably to Australia's export performance in 1998. Using calendar year figures, our exports have grown at a more sobering two per cent. But this is still a strong performance by our exporters, who, despite these trying times, have been able to diversify successfully into new markets in response to the slowdown in Asia.

Strong growth in exports during the 1997-98 financial year to markets like the USA, up by 41 per cent, and the European Union, up by 25 per cent, as well as a number of other emerging markets, have demonstrated the benefits of market diversification. It more than justifies the approach that the government has taken since it was elected in 1996 to promote trade not just in our immediate region but also in growing markets around the world—an approach adopted well before East Asia's economic crisis began ringing alarm bells in the export community.

Our strong export performance also highlights the continuing resilience of our economy. Today, Australia's economic growth is among the highest in the developed world: unemployment is at its lowest level in eight years—with more improvement, hopefully, to come—interest rates are at their lowest levels in 30 years and inflation is below two per cent. The government's sound monetary and fiscal policies, and its structural reforms, have produced an economy described by the OECD as among the best of its member countries.

Despite these positive results, we cannot afford to rest on our laurels. In the `Trade outcomes and objectives statement' the government has outlined a comprehensive package of measures designed to ensure that Australia's trade continues to grow despite tougher times for world trade. These measures include a continuing effort to help East Asia out of its economic difficulties. The government has demonstrated through its substantive and timely response to the regional crisis—from our contributions to the IMF's rescue packages, and increased aid to Indonesia and Thailand, to the Prime Minister's good governance initiative prosecuted at APEC last year—that it is committed to Asia for the long haul. We do this because we are good neighbours. But we also do it because they are good customers, and we believe in the underlying economic strength of the region.

At the same time, the government will continue to encourage diversification into growth markets beyond our region. To that end, Austrade is opening new posts in Lima, Peru, and Bucharest, Romania, and we are strengthening our existing trade and diplomatic networks in posts such as Buenos Aires, Pretoria, Brussels and Abu Dhabi.

The Market Development Task Force, which has in a few short years already achieved impressive results, will continue to be the linchpin of our bilateral trade efforts. In 1998 the task force recorded many wins, such as approval for the export of Fuji apples to Japan, increased sales of automotive components to Korea and a 63 per cent rise in coal exports to the Philippines. While this government has devoted significant effort to reinvigorating our bilateral trade armoury, we have never lost sight of the fact that an export-oriented country like Australia needs a strong global trading framework to get access for our exporters to world markets. In the World Trade Organisation, Australia has been amongst a core of countries laying the groundwork for a new round of comprehensive trade negotiations—the so-called Millennium Round.

Now in the crucial year of 1999, we have the opportunity to launch this new round at the ministerial meeting to be held in Seattle in the US at the end of the year. President Clinton's recently announced support is the latest in an impressive list of countries now indicating support for a millenium round. Australia will continue to take a central role to ensure that a balanced package of market access results can deliver new market openings to Australian exporters. We will do this through a range of actions, including our continued leadership of the Cairns Group of agricultural fair traders, as well as through building alliances with other like-minded countries in key priority areas for the Australian economy, such as the very important area of world services trade. And we will do it all in close consultation with Australian exporters and all other interested members of the Australian community.

At the regional level, APEC will be a key vehicle for our continued commitment to regional economic recovery, regional market openings and practical trade outcomes. We will work closely with this year's APEC chair, New Zealand, to build support within APEC for a multilateral round. We will also focus on trade facilitation efforts to improve the environment for doing business in the region. APEC's response to the regional financial crisis will also be a priority, building on the $50 million economic and financial management package announced by the Prime Minister in the lead-up to last year's leaders' meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

In 1999 we will continue to emphasise the importance of trade for rural and regional Australia, and to assist small and medium enterprises in their export efforts right across Australia. In this more difficult trading environment, the government has reaffirmed its commitment to providing exporters with high-quality, timely market information and appropriate levels of trade finance and insurance for trade and investment activity. As just one example, I will be introducing new legislation in the current session of parliament to amend and improve the Export Market Development Grants Scheme so that it is better tailored to assisting small and medium enterprises to develop sustainable export platforms.

The `1999 Trade outcomes and objectives statement' reflects the government's efforts to strengthen Australia's outward looking and internationally competitive position. The statement highlights our export achievements but also warns of the challenges ahead. Most importantly, it sets out a clear path to meet these challenges. In short it is an indispensable document for all Australian exporters; it is one of those books that count. I commend the `1999 Trade outcomes and objectives statement' to the House, and I table the document and my statement.