Interview with David Speers, PM Agenda, Monday, 30 October 2017


SUBJECTS: FutureAsia – Trade, Barnaby Joyce

Today Labor has announced plans to allow greater scrutiny of any free trade deal before it’s signed, and greater scrutiny ten years after it’s signed as well. It says the Productivity Commission would analyse every agreement, every FTA before it’s signed, and then the Productivity Commission would have a good look at it ten years on – a decade after its implementation. Shadow Trade Minister Jason Clare has announced this policy today and joins me now. Thank you very much for your time this afternoon.

Let me get this straight, as Trade Minister you would go and negotiate a trade deal – there’s one being negotiated with India at the moment – but before signing you would say to the other party ‘look thanks, okay we’ve got to this position but now I’m going to go off and have the Productivity Commission have a look at it before I actually sign off on it.’ Is that how it would work?

JASON CLARE: No, that work can happen at the same time. What we’ve said is that before we sign a trade deal we’d table the draft trade deal in the Parliament. So all the Members of Parliament could have a look at it and also provide this independent advice. One of the problems we’ve got at the moment is the only advice that Parliamentarians get in the case of most trade deals that are negotiated and signed is advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. They’re the people negotiating the deal. I think it’s not good enough to just rely on the advice of the people who negotiated the deal to say it’s a good deal. You mentioned the rise of protectionism overseas, people feeling frustrated and angry. A lot of people suspicious about whether these deals are good for them or not. There’s a lot of people who think that the companies benefit but they don’t. And so introducing independent analysis into the process I think is an important, valuable thing to do. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry recommended this.

SPEERS: Just on the practicality though – and yes I know this might seem like a bit of a technical question – but are you saying the Productivity Commission would be able to see everything you negotiate as you negotiate it. It’s normally private this stuff, but they would keep a check on what you’re negotiating, what the Department’s negotiating and then simultaneously give advice. Is that what you’re talking about?

CLARE: Yes they would get access to that as the deal is being negotiated. One of the other things that we proposed before the last election, when Penny Wong was in this portfolio, is that where possible we should also provide copies of draft versions of the negotiations, as they’re being developed. Providing more information, being more transparent, more open with the Australian people I think is one of the things we need to do to tackle this scepticism that exists about these deals in the general community.

SPEERS: Just sticking on the Productivity Commission though, because we know they have some pretty strong views and have expressed them only recently on free trade agreements in general. Take a look at what they’ve said. Free trade agreements “…add to the complexity of international trade and investment, are costly and time-consuming to negotiate and add to the compliance costs of firms and administrative costs of governments.” So this body you would have keeping an eye on the process of negotiating a free trade deal would clearly have serious reservations about free trade agreements at all.

CLARE: They’ve made the point that I’ve made, that Chris Bowen has made as well, is that the best form of trade deal is a global trade deal. The next best deal is a regional trade deal and then after that are bilateral deals, because bilateral deals can create different sets of rules applying to different countries.

SPEERS: So they won’t be a priority for you. The priority will be global and then regional trade deals. Not any more of these bilateral deals

CLARE: The only thing I would add to that, David is you can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So there are big opportunities out there, for example with the trade deal with Indonesia at the moment. The Government’s also negotiating a regional trade deal with Europe. There’s the prospect of another regional trade agreement in Asia at the moment called RCEP. And today I’ve said we should be more ambitious than that and get a trade agreement that involves China, the United States, Australia and the rest of Asia. But what the Productivity Commission says when it says a global deal is better than a bilateral deal, they’re right.

SPEERS: Yeah but quite simply you’re asking a body that has serious problems with free trade agreements, bilateral free trade agreements, to run the ruler over them, provide a running commentary on what you’re doing, that you would make that public. This is a recipe for no more bi-lateral free trade agreements isn’t it?

CLARE: No I wouldn’t misrepresent what the PC said. They haven’t said we shouldn’t do bi-laterals they’re saying the best form of deal is a multilateral deal. 

SPEERS: Yeah I’m talking about bi-lateral free trade agreements, that’s what they’ve got problems with. So what I’m saying to you is that this would essentially be a road block to any future bi-lateral free trade agreements.

CLARE: No, well I don’t think roadblock is the word I would use. Before you sign up to a trade deal you have got to know that it’s going to be good for Australia. That it’s going to create jobs. That it’s going to create opportunities for different sectors of our economy.  At the moment the only thing the Parliament can rely on is advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

There are a number of different organisations from the business community through to the ACTU that say we should have independent analysis to tell us – what does it mean for jobs? What does it mean for household incomes? What does it mean for different sectors? What are the non-economic or strategic benefits for Australia of doing something like this as well? We need to know the costs and the benefits. At the moment we just don’t get that information, even some Liberal members of Parliament have called for this recently.  And that’s why we think we should do it.

SPEERS: You then have the Productivity Commission, ten years on from a free trade agreement, again have a review of them. So are you talking about reviewing the agreements we have in place with Chile, Japan, Korea, China and so on when you come to government?

CLARE: Yes, so after ten years we think it’s a good time to ask the Productivity Commission to see how successful they’ve been. Have they achieved the objectives that were set when the deal was struck? Where have they not met the objectives that we set for the trade deal? And that will provide us with advice that will make sure we sign up to better deals in the future but also make changes to those existing deals.

SPEERS: But only that or will it also mean… Yeah ok so you would actually renegotiate some of these existing deals?

CLARE: Every five years with almost all of these trade deals David they get renegotiated and improved. Singapore is a good example of that. It was renegotiated just in the last twelve months. This sort of independent advice will help with that but I also think it will help to put the feet to the fire of the government and the bureaucracy knowing that this inquiry is going to take place after ten years. To make sure that we squeeze every possible benefit for Australia out of these deals. Make sure that we are maximising the jobs and economic opportunities because when it comes to trade deals we tend to underutilise the benefits of them more than other countries.

SPEERS: Do you think the agreements we do have in place with China, Japan and South Korea in particular are good for Australia?

CLARE: You can see the benefits that they’re delivering already but  often we underutilise them because businesses don’t know they exist, or they’re very technical in nature and they don’t know how to use them. Or sometimes, it’s because of market access issues.

For example we still can’t export blueberries and beans and broccoli to China. We’re having problems getting meat into China at the moment. So one of the other things I announced today is that we would establish a joint team made up of DFAT, Austrade, Agriculture and Industry to work with business when they’ve got a problem getting their product into a market overseas. At the moment I’m told by business that some agencies are better than others.

The former New Zealand Government announced before the last New Zealand election that they’d set up a joint team to do this – reporting to a Cabinet Committee. I think that’s a good idea so we’ve taken that approach and we said we’d set up something similar in Australia if we win the next election.

SPEERS: Alright just away from your portfolio finally. Jason Clare, the New England by-election – Tony Windsor is not running, One Nation is not running, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party isn’t running – will Labor still be running?

CLARE: Yes we’ll put a candidate up. We’re a party who wants to govern the country for all Australians. That means you’ve got to put your hand up. We don’t have high expectations. At the last election we only got seven percent of the vote but day after day when you see the Liberal Party and the National Party fighting with each other you can see all the hallmarks of a government that is going down the toilet. Just fighting and feuding with each other day after day and that’s not good for Australia.

SPEERS: Ok but this is now well and truly underway, is Labor having any difficulty finding a candidate?

CLARE: No I think we’ll select a candidate at the end of the week.

SPEERS: Alright Jason Clare appreciate your time. Thank you very much for joining us.

CLARE: Terrific. Thanks David.