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Thursday, 15 October 2015
Page: 7824

Senator SMITH (Western Australia) (15:49): I present the report of the Joint Select Committee on Trade and Investment Growth inquiry into business utilisation of Australia's free-trade agreements together with the minutes of proceedings and move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

Australia has been an active participant in the international trend to use free-trade agreements to advance trade liberalisation. This inquiry investigated the experience of Australian businesses using FTAs. While the business community strongly supports the policy of pursuing FTAs, this inquiry has also identified potential reforms that could increase the ability of business to realise the full benefits of free-trade agreements.

Current government processes have clearly been very successful in conducting and finalising FTA negotiations with partner countries. There is potential, however, to make these processes more transparent by having potential free-trade agreements evaluated by an agency such as the Productivity Commission. This would increase public confidence, facilitate business planning and assist government decision making during the negotiation process. Australia could also benefit from allowing greater involvement of peak industry groups in the negotiation processes. This would help ensure that negotiators are able to target the most beneficial outcomes for Australian businesses.

While free-trade agreements create a framework for trade, they do not necessarily guarantee immediate market access. Essential standards such as those covering product safety or professional qualifications can unintentionally become barriers to trade. A clear example of this is the impediments that sanitary or phytosanitary or SPS regulations place on horticultural exporters. SPS regulations are used by countries to protect their populations, industries and environments from the risks of pests and disease. New products are not granted access to market until they have been assessed for the SPS risk. Australian horticultural producers raised the issue that access to a number of markets has been denied or only granted with conditions that would make trade unviable. In other cases, they have simply not been able to have their products assessed.

The committee has identified a number of measures that could accelerate progress on these issues. A high priority for negotiators should be achieving recognition of Australia's fruit fly-free regions, additionally providing capacity building assistance to FTA partners in developing countries can assist them to develop science based SPS protocols and faster assessment processes.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has Australia's most experienced trade negotiators, who have established relationships with negotiators in partner countries. The committee believes Australia's position would be strengthened by the formal involvement of DFAT negotiators in market access negotiations. Australian negotiators aim for consistency in the rules and conditions used in free trade agreements but, unfortunately, this is not always possible. The proliferation of rules can lead to a complex and confusing regulatory environment for exporters.

Given this, it is imperative the government provides clear, accessible information that explains how business can benefit from the opportunities provided by free trade agreements. A high priority is to provide exporters with a means of easily accessing the import regulations used by Australia's FTA partners. The online FTA dashboard being developed by DFAT is an important step in this direction. Ultimately, the aim should be to develop a tool which provides information on all FTA partner countries that is detailed and up to date yet also intuitive and easy to use.

The government's North Asia FTA seminar series has been well received by business. There is, however, some concern about the time that is being taken to deliver the series across the country. Greater involvement of peak industry groups could speed up the rollout of the seminars and also enable the information to be tailored for particular industries. The creation of a recognisable Brand Australia logo and marketing campaign would assist business, capture the premium generated by Australia's reputation for producing high-quality, clean, green products. The government should also support businesses to develop anticounterfeit technologies that would protect them from the damage that counterfeit goods can cause to their brand and Australia's reputation.

In closing, I thank the businesses, peak organisations and government agencies that provided submissions and appeared at public hearings for this inquiry and thank my fellow committee members for their participation and contribution to this important and timely inquiry. I commend the report to the Senate and seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.