Publicising costs and benefits of trade deals gets bipartisan support

Free trade deals would be subject to outside economic analysis to see how good they would be for the country under a bipartisan proposal that would also increase transparency around any agreement as it was being negotiated.

The Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties on Thursday released its long-awaited report into the way trade deals are negotiated, backing independent analysis of deals to also determine if they stood up to a government’s claims about them.

Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson in June this year when they agreed on the broad principles of the Australia-UK free trade agreement.Credit:Getty Images

For several years there has been pressure on the government to allow the Productivity Commission to vet trade deals amid claims that many agreements have either fallen short of their purported benefits or only encouraged the shift of trade from one country to another.

While Britain has released an economic analysis of the proposed Australia-UK free trade agreement, showing it would deliver a modest increase in British GDP over the next decade, there has been no independent Australian analysis of the deal.

The treaties committee, chaired by Liberal MP David Sharma, said independent analysis would strengthen the case for trade deals by showing their benefits.

“The committee considers that credible and independent economic analysis of trade agreements would increase public confidence in the benefits of trade agreements,” it argued.

It backed modelling and broader sectoral analysis of trade deals by either the Productivity Commission or a “similarly independent and expert body”.

The committee also backed allowing business, industry and civil organisations to see more details of a trade deal as it is being negotiated.

Some business and civil organisations have criticised the way many negotiations are held in secret, only learning of its final details after the release of a completed deal. This contrasts with the European Union and the United States which bring in outside groups on the proviso they sign strong non-disclosure agreements.

The treaties committee backed the use of non-disclosure agreements, saying this would “allow improved access to industry and stakeholder expertise to inform negotiating positions”.

It also called on the government to publish the negotiation aim and objectives of all future trade deals and that it brief the committee twice a year on the status of those trade deals.

Labor MPs on the committee supported the proposals, saying while free trade agreements delivered economic benefits, there were also costs that should be acknowledged.

“We should never glide over the fact that such agreements can be negotiated with more or less rigour and quality. Australia is a trading nation, and we should have more self-respect than to go along with discussions around trade that proceed from simplistic slogans like ‘trade creates jobs’ when even that is not always true,” they said.

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