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Thursday, 6 March 2003
Page: 9406

Senator O'BRIEN (2:00 PM) —My question is to Senator Hill representing the Minister for Trade. Is the minister aware of the statement by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry on 4 March 2003 that Australia's quarantine system and our single desk for wheat are not up for grabs as part of the free trade agreement negotiations with the United States? Is he also aware of advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee on 13 February this year, which stated:

The government's consistent position in relation to the FTA negotiations with the United States has been that no sector or issue would be excluded from the scope of the FTA negotiations.

Given these completely contradictory statements, who is telling the truth on this matter—the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade or the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry?

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —As I understand the situation, no sector has been explicitly excluded. However, we have interests that we would obviously wish to preserve during the negotiations. In particular I refer to the quarantine issue that was alluded to in the question. Our quarantine laws are designed for genuine quarantine reasons and not as a form of trade blockage. Therefore we would want to protect them for genuine quarantine reasons. Therefore the answer is that within this negotiation Australia will seek an outcome that not only maximises our trade advantage but preserves security that has been put in place for quarantine and like matters.

Senator O'BRIEN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I note the minister says that those matters are on the table for negotiations. Can the minister guarantee that no change to the single desk arrangements or our quarantine standards or systems will be forced onto Australia as a consequence of any proposed free trade agreement with the United States? That is the question that I think Australians want answered.

Senator HILL (Minister for Defence) —As I said, we are not going to agree to an outcome that puts us at risk. That is why we have quarantine rules and regulations.

Senator O'Brien —What about systems?

Senator HILL —I said rules and regulations; we will say practices as well. We obviously want to preserve those because they are critically important to the wellbeing of Australian agriculture and protecting Australia's biodiversity and for good environmental reasons—a whole range of sound reasons that are unrelated to issues of trade. For those very sound reasons, obviously our quarantine rules will be preserved.