TRADE POLICY REVIEW:
Concluding remarks by the Chairperson
- Trade Policy Review: Australia
This eighth Trade Policy Review of Australia has allowed us to track and acknowledge significant developments in the economic, trade and investment regime of Australia over the past five years. I would like to thank especially the head of the Australian delegation, Mr. George Mina, First Assistant Secretary, Office of Trade Negotiations at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and his Canberra-based colleagues, who made a very long journey to participate in this review under exceptional circumstances, as well as our discussant, Ambassador Julian Braithwaite, Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom, for his valuable remarks and insights. My gratitude is also extended to the WTO Members that provided advance written questions and approximately 40 delegations for their formal statements that allowed us to conduct the proceedings as a “virtual review”.
In their statements, Members complimented Australia for sustained economic expansion, approaching nearly three decades of uninterrupted growth. The resilient performance was anchored in a sound institutional framework built on trade openness and a generally positive attitude towards foreign investment. Prudent macroeconomic policies, including a judicious fiscal policy, allowed economic stimuli and assistance to be provided in response to adverse conditions, whether in the world's markets or due to the vagaries of weather or climate change. Some of these vulnerabilities, such as the recent bushfires and the prevalence of the coronavirus, could be increasing. Additional support to enhance productivity and address other ongoing challenges would no doubt be required.
Members welcomed Australia's leadership role in the WTO and its active participation in almost all fora. Australia's broad, positive agenda notably spanned from institutional reform of the WTO, the preservation of a two-tiered dispute settlement mechanism, and reform of agriculture to the negotiations on fisheries subsidies, and discussions on rules for electronic commerce; services domestic regulation; investment facilitation for development; Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), gender and the economic empowerment of women; as well as trade and environment issues. Australia's pursuit of enhanced transparency within the WTO framework was backed up by an excellent track record in the fulfilment of its own notification obligations. Australia's generous contributions to aid for trade activities, in combination with full duty-free quota-free market access for LDCs and extensive trade preferences for developing countries, were also highlighted.
In the period under review, Australia had ratified the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement, leading to further simplification of customs procedures, and provided additional market opening with accession to the plurilateral Agreement on Government Procurement and implementation of the expanded Information Technology Agreement. Australia had also accepted the Protocol amending the TRIPS Agreement and was committed to strengthening IP protection and enforcement. At the regional and bilateral level, significant market liberalization was taking place under the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Australia's free trade agreements with Japan and China. Further trade expansion was in the pipeline, as concluded FTAs were entering into force, and new FTAs were under negotiation.
Australia's MFN tariff regime was characterized by an average applied rate of 2.5% with lower rates for agricultural products than for other goods. Although these low rates were highly appreciated, the continued decline in applied MFN tariffs was also widening the gap between Australia's applied and bound regime under the WTO. Some of Australia's bound tariffs were high, particularly on textiles and clothing items, and a substantial number of tariff lines remained unbound.
Some Members raised specific concerns or issues regarding aspects of Australia's system of indirect taxation, including recent amendments to extend the Goods and Services Tax (GST) to cross-border trade in digital products and services, and advantages accorded to certain producers through the Wine Equalization Tax. The Luxury Car Tax, together with the proliferation of similar taxes at the state level, presented a distinct disadvantage to the exports of some trading partners. Australia was also called upon to reform its fiscal regime for offshore banking units.
Many Members pointed to Australia's agricultural sector as a highly successful outward oriented business with minimal tariff protection and low levels of domestic support. Noting the entry into force of the Biosecurity Act 2015 and related legislation, designed to modernize Australia's biosecurity system in a trade-facilitative manner, several Members nevertheless provided concrete examples of products that, in their view, continued to be subject to barriers or measures that were more trade restrictive than necessary. Australia was urged to ensure that its sanitary and phytosanitary regulations and requirements be consistent with the WTO Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. A new country of origin labelling system, affecting many types of imported food, was also a subject of wide interest.
It was noted that Australia continued to be an active user of anti-dumping and countervailing measures, with steel products accounting for more than 50% of the measures in force. Australia was encouraged to use trade remedies prudently going forward.
Some Members felt that, although Australia welcomed foreign investment in general, its review regime based on screening and evaluation of investment proposals against national interest criteria had been gradually tightened in a non-transparent manner. According to some Members, the Australian Government applied wide grounds for the screening of foreign investment that went beyond national security.
Australia received more than 500 advance written questions within the established deadline and, having opted for the alternative timeline, provided written replies to these and additional questions one week ahead of its Review. This TPR will be successfully concluded once replies to further late questions and follow-up questions are received in one month's time. The large number of questions and active engagement across the WTO Membership in this TPR is ample testimony of the crucial role that Australia plays in upholding, defending and enhancing the value and relevance of this institution. I congratulate Australia on the successful conclusion of this Trade Policy Review and reiterate my thanks to all delegations for their cooperation, good will and assistance.