Single desk 'for sale'

27 Nov, 2002 10:00 PM
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AUSTRALIA'S single desk wheat export monopoly could be doomed if Australia signs a free trade agreement with the US next year.

The US has made it clear over many years that it wants deregulation of Australia's multi-billion dollar wheat export industry and FTA negotiators are certain to flag single desk as a "big ticket item" when talks begin early next year.

And big name players in Australian agriculture - such as National Farmers Federation president Peter Corish and Grains Council of Australia chairman Keith Perrett - refuse to rule out the possibility of single desk being used as a bargaining chip.

Pressure is also likely to come from within, if single desk becomes a stumbling block, because the Australian beef, lamb, sugar and dairy industries look set to benefit substantially from a comprehensive FTA with the US.

There are opponents to single desk within the grains industry, who have been agitating for a change to the structure, that are likely to support a push to disband it.

Mr Perrett said he would lobby strongly for single desk to be protected in any FTA negotiations but could not declare it a non-negotiable item.

"FTA talks need to be as broad as possible and it would be unreasonable to say anything was off the table before entering into negotiations," Mr Perrett said.

"Single desk could be a target. If it is, we would have to look at it and see if it is market distorting - if it is not, it stays.

"We will make it clear that we believe single desk must be protected.

"But there needs to be a lot of discussion before we come to a united position."

Mr Perrett is chairman of a FTA working group, set up by NFF, made up of representatives of all the major commodities to provide advice for government negotiators.

"The NFF has set up a free trade agreement working group which will provide a united viewpoint to the government," Mr Perrett said.

"All major commodities are represented and together we will provide a untied position. But there needs to be a lot of discussion before we reach a consensus."

Mr Corish said the single desk system had been in the spotlight for some time and would "come under significant pressure" during FTA talks.

"The FTA working group has a close relationship with key government negotiators and will work very closely with them to ensure a suitable outcome for all concerned," Mr Corish said.

"In trade talks, two items that always come up are quarantine and single desk for wheat, sugar and rice.

"From our point-of-view quarantine is not up for negotiation. We are isolated and free from many diseases that trouble other countries and we believe we have a right to protect our farms and our producers.

"For three industries (wheat, sugar and rice) the issue is whether the single desk is put up for negotiation.

"There are a lot of grassroots farmers that would be loathe to lose single desk and would not be considered without the benefits of significant compensation."

Meat and Livestock Australia general manager for marketing services Peter Barnard, also a member of the FTA working group, said everything should be on the table "from both sides".

"Every time I am in the US for trade, single desk is brought up," Dr Barnard said.

"I was there only three weeks ago and it was a talking point.

"It is our view that everything should be considered for negotiation and the working group will come up with a united proposal."

A spokesman for the Federal Department of Trade said it was too early to predict what the US would ask for.

"We are one week into the notification period and we don't really know what demands will be made," the spokesman said.

"We are well aware of the value of AWB's position. There is a good reason why AWB is structure like it is.

"We also are aware of the opportunities in a free trade agreement and will be working to secure the best outcome possible."

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