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Labor to pursue bilateral FTAs

The Australian | August 13, 2008

Labor to pursue bilateral FTAs

Dennis Shanahan and Patricia Karvelas

KEVIN Rudd has vowed to "vigorously pursue" bilateral trade agreements on his latest swing through Asia following the collapse of the world free trade talks in Geneva.

In a shift in rhetoric and emphasis from multilateral trade negotiations, the Prime Minister said in Singapore yesterday that the federal Government would pursue bilateral trade deals.

Mr Rudd, a long-term advocate of multilateral trade negotiations, pointed to his agreement this week in Seoul to start free trade talks with South Korea as evidence of his belief in bilateral agreements.

Earlier, in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, Mr Rudd talked to the Chinese leadership about the Australia-China FTA, but said despite the failure of the Doha Round of World Trade Organisation talks, he was still hopeful of a result.

"We are absolutely vigorously committed to the successful prosecution of the multilateral trade liberalisation round through Doha," he said in Singapore.

"We are a member of the G7 group of negotiating countries led by Trade Minister Simon Crean, and we haven’t given up yet.

"In fact it’s been a feature of my discussions elsewhere in the region, including with the Chinese, about how we can still close the gap between the final negotiating positions reached in Geneva only a week or two ago.

"Multilateral trade liberalisation is the best for the world because the rules then don’t discriminate against any country and that’s the best way to enhance global economic growth."

Yet since the collapse of the Doha Round of talks, Australia has signed an FTA with Chile, agreed in principle to an FTA with South Korea and pushed the slow-moving negotiations with China.

Australia already has an FTA with Singapore.

Before the election, Mr Rudd accused the Howard government of putting all its effort into bilateral agreements and lacking political will on multilateral agreements.

In July 2006, Mr Rudd said: "The Howard government has had this consistent policy of saying bilateral free trade agreements are fine and if we manage to get a multilateral free trade agreement through the Doha Round, that would be OK as well. The Australian government under John Howard over many years has led to the incremental whittling away of the global importance of the multilateral trade rounds’ successful conclusion because they have led the charge globally in the negotiations of bilateral FTAs."

Yesterday, Mr Rudd said Labor had indicated "both as an Opposition party and as a party now in government that we’ll prosecute" the agendas of both bilateral and multilateral trade.

"Effective free trade agreements are hard if they are real free trade agreements because they involve substantive negotiations on substantive matters which involve concessions on the part of both parties, and for them to be WTO-compatible they have to genuinely liberalise trade as opposed to being an exercise in gesture politics," he said.

 source: The Australian