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In the dark on trade deal

Sydney Morning Herald, Australia

In the dark on trade deal

By Peter Martin

22 May 2012

At 11.30 this morning, Kuala Lumpur time, 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 to 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 deals "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 United States-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 there will be time to examine the deal with Malaysia after it is signed. He’ll table it in Parliament for 20 sitting days along with a national interest analysis. Only then will it be ratified.

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