G20 urged to back free trade

Australia must use its Group of 20 presidency to make case for free trade.

Australia must use its Group of 20 presidency to make the case for free trade, the corporate leader chairing a pivotal advisory forum has declared.

Delivering an upbeat assessment of progress on the Business 20 Australia forum that he chairs, Wesfarmers chief executive Richard Goyder also said the business community wanted concrete outcomes from this year’s G20 “and if ever the G20 is going to do some things, it will be I think this year for a variety of reasons”.

Driving trade growth is one of the four priority areas for the B20 and comes as Tony Abbott will next week lead a business delegation to Asia that will push to close trade deals.

“I think Australia has to make the case, or Australia can make the case, that an open trade and free trade is a good thing, a good thing for our economy,” Mr Goyder said.

“We need to set an example and demonstrate why it’s been good for our economy, that’s going to help. One of the problems with trade, frankly, is there is a whole bunch of groups within countries who think open trade is a negative. And I think Australia is a case in point where it’s clearly been a positive. It’s where we’ve put up trade barriers that we’ve failed.’’

Australia has concluded negotiations for a free-trade agreement with Korea, with the deal expected to be signed off by the Prime Minister, while progress is expected to be made on deals with Japan and China.

Yesterday, Trade Minister Andrew Robb said a deal on the Trans Pacific Partnership was close.

The B20’s trade taskforce, headed by BHP Billiton’s Andrew Mackenzie, is working on policy recommendations to push for trade liberalisation and resist protectionism, as well as to increase the emphasis on the trade in services.

B20 “sherpa” Robert Millner said there was a focus on a number of issues, including “ensuring that these regional trade agreements like the TPP don’t stand in the way of further multilateral developments”.

“We still think that ultimately the better outcome would be around a full multilateral comprehensive package,’’ Mr Millner said.

“But in the meantime it’s better to see some of the plurilateral agreements going ahead provided they don’t impede multilateral arrangements.”

The B20 will be making recommendations ahead of this year’s Brisbane G20 summit in November, which are aimed at spurring economic growth and job creation.

As well as trade, the B20 has taskforces on financing growth, human capital and infrastructure.

The taskforce on financing growth, chaired by ANZ’s Mike Smith, is focused on ensuring that unintended costs are avoided as core reforms to the global financial system are bedded down.

The human capital taskforce is focused heavily on unemployment and jobless youth, as well as the paradox where economies struggle to fill job vacancies even where unemployment was high.

Mr Goyder pointed to the mismatch between the skills that university graduates have and the jobs available.

“That goes to the funding model. I know in my home state, people tell me there are way too many lawyers who graduate and not enough people who can do maths and engineering.”

While there have been reports that Australia has canvassed barring Russia from engagement in this year’s Brisbane meeting because of its actions in the Ukraine, Mr Goyder expressed confidence about the prospects for concrete outcomes.

“At the end of the day the G20 meeting in November will be important, but if it gets to some extent sidetracked by political events of the day I think the work that we’ve done will still have the actions that we hope. I don’t think that will reduce the prospects of actions on those fronts.”