Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why do we negotiate free trade agreements in secret?


Prepare to discover what we have signed.

At 11.30 this morning Kuala Lumpur time our trade minister Craig Emerson and his Malaysian counterpart will sign a free trade agreement that promises “a new chapter” in the Australia-Malaysia relationship.

Only then will we find out what’s in it.

It’s standard procedure, according his minder.

“All the final details about what’s agreed will be published once both parties sign it,” is how he puts it.

Pressed as to whether it might be better for Australians to see what has been agreed to in their names and perhaps assess it before it is signed he replies: “this is the way it’s always been”.

Only because Craig Emerson insisted on it.

In December 2010 after a year long investigation the Productivity Commission recommended the government “commission and publish an independent and transparent assessment” of future free trade agreements “at the conclusion of negotiations but before an agreement is signed”.

Emerson said no, on the odd ground that “quantitative analysis can be highly misleading”.

Which it can be. One of the reasons Australia needs more free trade agreements is because of the impact of its previous free trade agreements...

After the Howard government signed the US-Australia FTA last decade China hit back by stitching up its own agreements with Malaysia and New Zealand. Their meat, wine, fruit, vegetables and oil seeds can enter China duty free. Ours cannot.

Emerson says we will have plenty of time to examine the Malaysia-Australia agreement after its signed. He’ll table it in parliament for 20 sitting days along with a national interest analysis. Only then will it be ratified.

Next off the rank will be the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement encompassing Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam. We won’t see that until its signed either.

In today's Age

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