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  • Writer's pictureFlow Australia

Industry and unions demand deeper view of trade deals

New laws are needed to make sure workers and businesses can have their say on trade agreements Australia negotiates, unions and and industry say.

Unions and business groups are pushing for new laws to ensure workers' rights, Australian jobs and industry interests are considered when negotiating trade agreements.

How Australia negotiates and enters into trade pacts with other nations is being scrutinised by a parliamentary committee.

Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O'Neil criticised the current system, saying government processes were secretive and unions were not properly consulted. 

It was a "great irony" unions were left to rely on public documents from other governments to find out the impact a trade deal would have on Australian jobs, as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was not forthcoming with information, she said. 

This was the case for recent negotiations for a pact with the European Union, she said.

"Negotiations are currently conducted behind closed doors and Australia lags behind other like-minded countries when it comes to transparency and public scrutiny of agreements," Ms O'Neil told an inquiry hearing on Friday.

Unions needed to be privy to confidential briefings and be able to see the proposed treaty's text so they could adequately provide input, as opposed to receiving vague updates, she said.

"It's too late when we find out," Ms O'Neil told the committee, adding the only recourse after an agreement was signed was for the parliament to accept or refuse to ratify the entire treaty rather than edit specific provisions.

The Australian Industry Group also called for more access, arguing there should be greater transparency from the government when negotiating agreements.

Businesses often had access to confidential text the group couldn't get until the agreement was made public, head of industry development and policy Louise McGrath said.

"In terms of parity, we do not have the same access as our business colleagues," she told the hearing.

While the industry group was able to look at past patterns and areas of interest for countries involved in talks with Australia, only vague problem areas were able to be identified.

"That gives us red flags but it doesn't give us clarity - we don't know what's going on in the room," Ms McGrath said.

Businesses were also over-represented in consultations, Ms O'Neil said, pointing to the UK free trade agreement negotiations where more than 140 organisations were consulted before negotiations commenced but not one union.

Ms O'Neil said laws were needed to hold the government accountable and ensure "clarity and democratic oversight of Australia's approach to trade" while leaving negotiators in charge of the strategy.

"But within a clear, democratically accountable set of parameters in the public interest," she said.

Ms McGrath agreed that Australia's trade negotiations needed to have transparency and parliamentary oversight

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which represents more than 400,000 companies, also supported legislating mandatory consultation.

ACCI international affairs team head Chris Barnes acknowledged the limitations imposed on government negotiators due to sensitivities.

"Nevertheless, there is potential to improve the consistency and quality of engagement," he said.

But he cautioned against making the legislation too narrow as "we would need to retain flexibility in the negotiations" with each agreement being different.


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