FTA rush will hurt farmers: Shorten

24 Oct, 2014 03:00 AM
Opposition leader Bill Shorten speaking at the NFF Congress 2014 in Canberra.
We should stay at the table for as long as it takes to get the right deal
Opposition leader Bill Shorten speaking at the NFF Congress 2014 in Canberra.

OPPOSITION Leader Bill Shorten has warned the Coalition government against rushing into a hasty conclusion on a free trade agreement (FTA) with China, causing negative consequences for Australian farmers and agricultural trade.

Speaking at the National Farmers' Federation (NFF) biennial congress in Canberra this week, Mr Shorten said his party was committed to free trade that’s in the national interest.

But he said when signing recent FTAs with Korea and Japan – and in the current negotiations with China – “getting pen to paper” seems to have taken priority over content for the government.

“They (government) seem more focused on booking a venue for the signing ceremony than examining the fine print or getting a better deal,” he said.

“I’ve spent most of my working life negotiating outcomes – and whenever you publicly impose a deadline on yourself, as the government has done, whenever you say ‘this is the date when we must get a deal done’, as the Prime Minister has said – all you do is weaken your position.

“That’s why Labor will be examining the content of any Australia-China FTA closely.

“We won’t be rushed and the government should not be rushing.

“We should stay at the table for as long as it takes to get the right deal in Australia’s national interest,” Mr Shorten said.

China no 'pushover'

Mr Shorten also highlighted reports that surfaced earlier this month on China’s move to introduce a 3 per cent levy imposed on coking coal imports and 6pc on lower grade thermal coal.

“China are clearly no pushover with the coal tariffs that they’re introducing,” he said.

“One wonders with how much that has to do with getting a better deal on the China-Australia FTA.”

Mr Shorten said his party believed free trade was good for farmers “and more free trade in agriculture is better”.

He said in government, Labor had laid the groundwork for the Japan and Korea agreements – but questioned if the final outcomes agreed to by the Coalition, were the best possible deal for Australian agriculture.

“Will we think they were a good deal as they are implemented in the years ahead?” he said.

“(But) staying at the table longer may well have generated a better outcome, with fewer barriers.

“Labor supported the Korean FTA because we made the decision that the national interest was better served by signing rather than not signing the agreement.”

Beyond tariff reduction

Mr Shorten said his party wanted to see an FTA with China that delivers new markets for Australian grain exporters and a “New Zealand plus” level of tariff reduction for the local dairy industry.

But he said guaranteeing market access also goes beyond tariff reduction and depends on reducing non-tariff barriers to trade.

“Technical barriers, red tape and batch testing inhibit our exporters, even as tariff rates come down,” he said.

“They bring an estimated $1.3 billion cost for our meat industry – and $1.57 billion for dairy.

“Our goal should be to gradually reduce these technical barriers to trade, especially in Indonesia, China and the Middle East.

“This means going beyond FTAs to negotiate smoother passage for our produce over their borders and into their retail markets.

“It means helping grain exporters, by bringing down the costs associated with shipping and the control of terminals,” he said.

“It also means that the work of an FTA doesn’t end when the signing ceremony does - delivering the benefits of free trade demands continual effort.

“If our farmers and companies cannot bank the proclaimed benefits of an FTA, then it is just an empty photo opportunity.

“That’s why Labor is committed to delivering real free trade outcomes which are real.”

Coal tariff a 'bump in the road'

Responding to the concerns about the impact of China’s new coal tariffs on FTA discussions, Federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb said the government’s objective to conclude a very good agreement this year remained unchanged.

“We are pushing for the elimination of tariffs on a wide range of agricultural items as well as on coal,” he said.

“The coal tariff issue is a bump in the road but it's certainly not the end of the world by any stretch.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said China’s coal tariffs were inconsistent with the general direction of trade between the two countries but did highlight the importance of the FTA “which we are working towards with China”.

“Negotiations for a free trade agreement with China were started by the Howard Government,” he said.

“They went nowhere for six years under the former government.

“They’ve been accelerated under this government and I very much hope we can land them at or before the G20 in Brisbane next month.

“What we want is an agreement which secures better access to Chinese markets for our exports, particularly our agricultural exports, in return for giving Australian consumers lower cost access to Chinese imports to this country.

“Now, I think it is clearly in the interests of both countries that this agreement be finalised and finalised soon,” he said.

“From time to time, there are always hiccups in trade relationships – even the very best of relationships – sometimes they have hiccups but the more reliable, the more solid the foundation, the less likely these hiccups are and that is why this FTA is very important.”

Colin Bettles

Colin Bettles

is the national political writer for Fairfax Agricultural Media
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


John Newton
24/10/2014 7:41:58 AM

When has any FTA been beneficial to any country or group?
24/10/2014 10:45:39 AM

With the greatest respect and with sincerity considering past performance of him and his party, why should we listen to this bloke?
Holy Moly
24/10/2014 11:53:04 AM

John Newton, FTAs have been incredibly beneficial to all the countries that have signed up with Aust. I still havent figured out what the "F" stands for.
12/11/2014 9:07:16 PM

We have Free trade??? where?? not US not China not Korea. How about a fair trade agreement? When is the negotiation on deregulating the workforce going to start? Why should a wage earner receive regulated income then pay global prices, a farmer receives global income but pays regulated wages. The Labor party certainly has done its best for its voters in the past. the Greens have done a lot with a small number of seats for their voters and..........


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