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Thai trade deal to be challenged

The Age, Melbourne

Thai trade deal to be challenged

11 January 2006

(AAP) Australia’s booming trade relations with Thailand are in doubt as a constitutional court challenge against the countries’ free trade pact looms in Bangkok.

The plans for a legal attack against the agreement have been set down by the Thai Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and come amid advanced negotiations between Thailand and the United States over a similar free trade pact.

Kraisak Choonhavan, Senate Foreign Affairs committee chairman, was asked if he believes the Thai-Australia Free Trade Agreement is unconstitutional.

"Absolutely. The Thai-Australia, (and) all the FTAs that were signed," Kraisak told AAP on Wednesday.

A six-page statement released by the committee said the FTA signed with Australia and the current negotiations with the US were unlawful.

The committee argues the Thai-Australia Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) was never debated in Parliament as required under Article 224 of the Thai Constitution.

Kraisak said the TAFTA would be used as a basis for legal challenge before the country’s Constitutional Court.

"This is clearly a breach of the constitution and yet the government says it is not," he said.

The committee accused the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of hastily pushing for FTA negotiations without listening to the views of farmers and academics.

"Its stance is a clear refusal to observe democratic procedure and constitutional laws," the committee said.

Kraisak accused the Thaksin administration of being autocratic by ignoring parliament.

"In fact the Thai government is behaving like an autocratic, authoritarian regime in not allowing any discussion to (take) place in the parliament. Expect to answer questions at a commission level," he said.

The planned legal challenge comes as thousands of farmers, rural workers and activists staged demonstrations in the northern city of Chiang Mai, the site of negotiations between US and Thai trade officials towards a free trade pact.

But a partial agreement covering agricultural goods with China made in 2003 has also raised protests from farmers, especially in the northern provinces that have been flooded by lower priced agricultural products leading to a sharp reduction in local agricultural output.

Australian and New Zealand dairy imports have also been the focus of local protests by farmers in recent weeks.

"We see the nudging out of entire Thai products from Thai farms from the middle and upper market of the supermarket and replaced by Australian fruits, New Zealand milk," Kraisak said.

The Thai-Australia free trade agreement came into effect last year as part of several bilateral pacts ranging from Latin America to East Asian nations.

The pacts were negotiated by the Thaksin government given the slow progress on global talks covering the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Doha Round of trade negotiations.

Australia’s agreement with Thailand has led to a sharp rise in bilateral trade, especially in the automotive sector in imports to Thailand, while the key dairy and foods market has expanded trading opportunities for Australian companies.

In the year to June 30, 2005, Australia imported A$4.2 billion in merchandise goods from Thailand while exporting A$3.9 billion worth of goods, according to Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade data.