By Joe Kelly
Negotiations for the massive free-trade zone, covering 40 per cent of global GDP, fell through at the weekend with outstanding issues remaining over market access for diary and sugar exporters and Australia resisting US pressure to extend data protections for biologic drugs.
Trade Minister Andrew Robb, who returned last night from the talks in Hawaii, said a deal remained within reach and that provisional decisions had been taken on more than 90 per cent of issues.
Sugar producers yesterday praised Mr Robb for turning down what was seen as an inadequate US offer to take 152,000 tonnes a year from local producers, a small increase on the 90,000 tonnes already exported to the US.
Queensland farmer Steve Guazzo said sugar farmers were “desperate to get some real recognition in this TPP deal” and pointed to the failure to increase access under the US free-trade agreement a decade ago. “We are strong allies with the US and very friendly with them,” he said. “We don’t think this is extending the friendship too much by exporting around 500,000 tonnes of sugar annually to America. We don’t think that’s a huge ask on them.”
Mr Guazzo, who produces about 20,000 tonnes for export on his property in Ingham in north Queensland, said he was “encouraged by the government’s stance” and hoped it sent a message to US negotiators. “Andrew Robb is holding out and the big obstacle is sugar,” he said. ‘‘We’ve really got to man-up here.”
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce told Sky News’s Australian Agenda there were still “political problems” with the US over market access. “America consumes about 10 million tonnes of sugar a year,’’ Mr Joyce said. “They produce about seven million tonnes of sugar a year. There’s a gap of three million tonnes and we’re saying: ‘Look, America, the United States of America, God bless you, you believe in free trade, surely that also goes to us being able to export slightly more than 152,000 tonnes to you.’ ”
While no outcome was reached on sugar, government sources said Australia was “in good shape” in terms of gaining market access for a range of other key items, including horticulture, wine, seafood, dairy and beef.
As revealed last week by The Australian, up to five Nationals MPs in the Queensland “sugar-belt” are prepared to cross the floor and vote against the Trans-Pacific Partnership bill if it fails to secure a satisfactory outcome on sugar. Opposition trade spokeswoman Penny Wong said yesterday that Labor would assess any completed TPP deal to “ensure it is in the national interest” and warned against the inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement provisions which potentially expose the government to legal challenge from overseas corporations.
Trade expert Alan Oxley, the chairman of RMIT’s APEC Study Centre and Australia’s ambassador to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade from 1985–89, warned that there was a political cut-off point for when a deal could be finalised. He said he still believed the odds were in favour of an agreement being struck and that it was now a legacy issue for US President Barack Obama.
“APEC’s handy because a lot of them will be meeting,” he said. “The signs are, from reports of the negotiations, the parties involved will continue talking among themselves. Yes, there is a cut-off point. It is political; not chronological. Clearly Obama will try to put this until such time (as) the political climate is antipathetic.”
James Brown from the United States Studies Centre said the deal was “still very much alive” and noted that the North American Free-Trade Agreement was finalised late in the US electoral cycle in the 1992 presidential campaign.
But he said it was “much more difficult to get this deal done in an election year”. “My take is that anything up until the end of this year is fine in terms of getting the deal done. Any time until congress goes into its winter recess. Beyond that, it starts to get difficult.’’
This article originally appeared in The Australian