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Farm lobby cautious

Trade experts and professionals from around the world gathered in Perth last week to discuss the AUSFTA, the proposed free trade agreement between Australia and the US. Alison Birrane attended the seminar, hosted by CCIWA and Curtin University, to listen to the expected benefits, concerns and arguments for and against and the FTA.

 

AGRICULTURE has emerged as a major challenge facing Australian negotiators working on the Australia-United States Free Trade Agreement, for while an AUSFTA will bring many opportunities, there are many hurdles to clear.

That’s particularly the case for farmers in Western Australia, according to WA Farmers Federation president Colin Nichol, who says primary producers must be convinced that the detail level of the AUSFTA will provide long-term benefits to WA’s agricultural sector.

Mr Nichol said an AUSFTA would benefit Australian farmers where the legislative and regulatory framework had been adequately structured in Australia and the US.

“This will foster, through commercial participation of primary producers, a greater involvement in the value chain for primary products and hence a greater share of products at end user cost,” he said.

However Mr Nichols said Australian negotiators should be aware of the “hidden barriers”, such as the Jones Act, the Capper-Volstead Act, and the Export Trading Company Act – which he said could be implemented at the stroke of a pen — to ensure they were not overlooked by Australian negotiators.

“WA primary producers should both demand and negotiate for a trading environment that will improve the economic outcome of the agribusiness sector, from both the export of our raw product and the building of a strong value adding environment in WA for WA’s raw product,” Mr Nichol said.

Among other concerns – including Data Protection (Chemicals) legislation to go to Federal Parliament before the AUSFTA is concluded – Mr Nichols said the single desk export facility and quarantine topped the list of issues on which the WA farm sector was seeking assurances.

“The AWB and single desk export facility for wheat and the scientifically based Australian quarantine process are not negotiable in principle for very simple reasons – they provide benefits to Australian grain producers of quality and product control, niche marketing and cooperative single seller status for export,” he said.

“They clearly are not subsidies.

“To concede these two areas for the so-called broader context of the trade agreement would be to destroy the foundation of the Australian primary production economic framework, let alone the social and cultural aspects of this country.”

In his address to the seminar, Agriculture Minister Kim Chance said the State Government would support the preservation of the single desk arrangement for wheat and would ensure that WA’s regional quarantine status would not be compromised as part of the AUSFTA arrangements.

“The holder of the single desk for wheat in Australia, AWB Ltd, is only a fraction of the size of a number of US and multi-national grain traders,” he said.

“The size of AWB Ltd does not pose a threat to competition in the international grain trade.

“The United States has also stated in its objectives for the free trade agreement that it will aim to eliminate what it sees as unjustified quarantine restrictions.

“Frankly, I find this stated objective difficult to follow in terms of its logic.

“We now have, after years of effort, an effective multilateral agreement on quarantine through the WTO process.

“It is incomprehensible that we would consider weakening international confidence in the WTO agreement by doing a bilateral quarantine deal on the side as part of an FTA.”

But Mr Chance said a wide range of opportunities could be presented to WA farmers and agribusiness, should an acceptable agreement be reached in relation to market access in agriculture.

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