Pushing Forward with Trade: Trade Minister Mark Vaile on the Future for Australia's Exports. (Interview-Trade Minister)

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A free trade agreement with the US, the successful completion of the Doha WTO round, and strengthening links with Asia are the key priorities for Australia, Federal Trade Minister Mark Vaile says.

Q: You've stated in the past that a free trade agreement (FTA) with the USA is Australia's "key bilateral trade priority". What sort of impact will a US FTA have on Australia's economic and trade performance?

An FTA with the US, the world's largest economy, would deliver substantial economic benefits to Australia. Two studies commissioned by the Government have outlined the potential benefits of an Australian-US FTA.

The first of these, carried out by the Centre for International Economics, showed that complete removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers to bilateral trade could increase GDP by as much as 0.4 per cent, or around $4 billion annually.

The second study, carried out by the APEC Study Centre, looked at the wider economic, trade and regional implications. It found that the indirect benefits of an FTA could be as significant as the direct ones through promoting investment flows, facilitating business linkages, and through the adoption of best practice in areas like management and e-commerce.

The recent passage of the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) through Congress will place the Bush administration in a better position to move ahead with negotiations for an FTA with Australia. The Government was encouraged by President Bush's comments on 6 August on signing the TPA legislation that the US would explore an FTA with Australia. I am in contact with my US counterpart, Trade Representative Ambassador Zoellick, to discuss how we can move forward with this proposal.

Q: What's the timeframe for a possible FTA with the US? What will be the major stumbling blocks in securing the agreement?

Negotiations have not yet commenced on an FTA with the United States, although passage of the TPA improves prospects that we can advance discussions on matters such as the possible scope and timeframe for an agreement.

When discussing an Australia-US FTA, I prefer to focus on opportunities rather than stumbling blocks. However, the Government recognises that negotiations will pose a number of challenges for both sides.

Australia will be looking at all aspects of our trade and investment relationship with the United States, including areas which could see improved market access for our exporters.

Reducing barriers to Australian agricultural exports will be an important priority for Australia. I am confident that agriculture can be addressed in a meaningful way through an FTA, given the substantial agricultural interests that we have in common with the US, particularly a similar approach in WTO negotiations.

Aside from agriculture, Australia has an interest in improving market access for Australian exports of industrial products to the US, including in shipbuilding (fast ferries), textiles and clothing, automotive, chemicals, metals and machinery. Furthermore, while the US market for services is relatively open, there is a range of regulatory issues at both the federal and state levels--for example in professional and financial services, and telecommunications, that we would like to discuss.

Other areas offer potential to reach agreement which will strengthen our economic relationship, including intellectual property issues, e-commerce, and leading edge standards.

Q: Australia is also working with Singapore and Thailand on FTAs. What is the latest news on both those fronts?

The Government is hopeful of concluding an FTA with Singapore covering trade in both goods and services in the coming months. Good progress was made during the three rounds of the Australian-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (ASFTA) negotiations held this year, and further rounds are planned for September and October. …