AUSTRALIAN businesses are increasing their utilisation of free trade agreements, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade assistant secretary Lachlan Crews says.

Mr Crews noted recent free trade agreements including the TPP-11 (also known as the CPTPP or Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnerships).

“There is a bit of discussion in the trade community and there have been a number of reports come out about whether Australian business, particularly SMEs, are actually using our FTAs or are they sitting on the shelf,” he said.

“We at DFAT have commissioned some research in this area and based on trading data we know that utilisation of our FTAs is strong and it is growing over time.”

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He noted increased nut exports to China following ChAFTA.

“Before ChAFTA entered into force, China had a tariff rate on fruit and nut exports [from Australia] ranging between 10% and 30%, the tariffs are now eliminated from 1st of January this year,” Mr Crews said.

“Since ChAFTA came into force, Victorian exports of fruit and nuts to China have increased by over 600% from $44.5m in 2015 to $320m last year.

“Now I don’t want to give the impression ChAFTA is solely responsible… But the tariff benefits from free trade agreements means you can be decisive, particularly when we are going head to head with a third party in a market like China.”

Mr Crews spoke at the Border and Biosecurity Compliance Program in Melbourne, organised by the Freight and Trade Alliance.

Also speaking was specialist trade lawyer Russell Wiese who examined some trade agreements in detail.

Mr Wiese paid particular attention to CPTPP, noting the role of Japan in not abandoning the concept when the newly-elected Trump administration jettisoned the concept in early 2017.

He noted benefits for Australian beef exporters from Australia having joined the trade group without the US.

“In terms of economic studies, it has been found that Australia will be better off as a country that the US is not party to this FTA, and that is essentially in competing with say a country like Japan, the US is still stuck with Japan’s high tariffs,” he said.

“Beef exports for instance, instead of competing on level terms with the US, our beef exporters have a huge advantage. They wouldn’t have got that if the US was party to the TPP.”

Mr Wiese said the absence of the US from the CPTPP was bad for Australian sugar exporters “but other than that, generally, we maintained the benefits of an FTA with the US and the US not having FTAs with some of our key trading partners.”

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