SERVICES firms in the mining and energy sectors are set to be the biggest winners from the Trans Pacific Partnership, which enters its make-or-break week when a final round of talks start on Tuesday.
As trade representatives gather in Maui, Hawaii, an upbeat Trade Minister Andrew Robb told The Australian Financial Review that gains from the TPP would trump expectations if a deal can be sealed this week, which he says is looking increasingly likely.
"This will be the biggest agreement since the Uraguay round, anywhere, by a long way," said Mr Robb, referring to the 1994 WTO talks that delivered the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
"We are moving into areas that haven't been dealt with before," he said.
The trade minister said the farm opportunities looked to be "outstanding", reflecting soaring protein demand across Asia.
But he added that the most profound potential gains for Australia from the proposed deal would be areas that have not traditionally featured in trade agreements.
In addition to gains for lawyers and education providers, Mr Robb holds special hopes for Australian mining-related services firms which enjoy comparative advantage over their global rivals but face difficulties in several of the 12 Pacific Rim nations that make up the TPP.
He is looking for new mining and exploration opportunities from Malaysia to Vietnam and Mexico along with a slew of related environmental, research, training, safety and engineering services.
Talks for a TPP have been in train for five years and have reached a climax in recent weeks. Negotiators from 12 Pacific Rim nations are working 14-hour days to generate a coherent agreement out of the web of bilateral horse-trading ahead of four crucial days of ministerial meetings beginning in Hawaii on Tuesday.
The mining equipment technology and services sector [METS] which Mr Robb is targeting is worth $90 billion turnover with $15 billion in annual exports, according to Elizabeth Lewis-Gray, who heads the industry bod Austmine.
"The TPP is absolutely critical for METS," said Ms Lews-Gray, referring to tariff barriers and complex regulatory barriers.
Negotiators report that counterparts from all nations have arrived with the intention of clinching a deal in the narrow window between US President Barack Obama receiving fast-track negotiating authority and the US election cycle moving into its usual policy-paralysis stage.
They are confident of overcoming gamesmanship from individual countries and simmering concerns about US intellectual property demands which reach deep into areas of public health policy.
Some negotiators believe it should be sealed this week or risk not being done at all.
Opportunities for farmers
Beef, dairy and possibly sugar stand to win as Japan opens up hugely-protected markets for the first time.
"I think beef's run of luck will continue," said Mr Robb, which he said reflected huge growth in protein demand in the Asian region.
"We've been fighting hard for dairy," he said. "We're down to the really difficult ones - like sugar."
Japan has already made unprecedented agricultural concessions in preliminary talks with the US, driving up share prices last week for Japanese food makers in anticipation of cheaper farm inputs.
Mr Rob's challenge will be to secure a proportionate share of Japanese import quotas in competition with American producers.
Other novel aspects of the draft text include a pioneering chapter aimed at levelling the playing field with state-owned firms which receive subsidised finance, including Chinese firms operating in TPP countries.
Negotiators believe these could greatly assist Australian firms competing in the region.
The draft TPP text also contains enforceable anti-corruption provisions, with dispute resolution procedures, again for the first time in an agreement of its kind.
Ms Lews-Gray said the company she runs, Gekko Systems, which designs minerals processing plants for the gold industry, has to compete with Canadian firms in Mexico who enjoy a 10-15 per cent price advantage because they operate tariff-free under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"From my own company's point of view if we're trying to import into places like Peru and Mexico it's expensive because we're paying tariffs," she said.
"It's absolutely that significant."
Industry sources say listed mining industry services firms like Orica, Ausdrill, Monadelphous, Ausenco and Worleyparsons also stand to gain from the TPP.
Mr Robb said he'd learned how hard it was for cutting edge mining services firms to enter developing markets - from Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam to Peru and Mexico - when he was a director of Australia's largest consulting engineering company, Sinclair Knight Merz.
"Many of these countries have had significant restrictions on investment and exploration," he said.
But he is convinced that these innovative firms can pave the way for other sectors in distant markets once they gain a foothold.
"I always believe you lead with your strengths," he said. "This sector will be very materially advantaged and it will shine a light for everyone else," he said.
"In South America the only real weight of business is METS," said Mr Robb. "Of 110 Australian companies in Chilli, 95 of them are METS," he said. "They are leading us into so many markets including into Africa."