Yesterday (14 October 2014), the Australian Federal Government released its much-awaited document entitled the "Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda" ("Agenda").

The "Action Plan for a Stronger Australia" represents a broadly-based initiative as part of the commitment of the Federal Government to improve Australian competitiveness both here and overseas.  It also links to the current de-regulation agenda.  The Agenda includes a number of items which will have an impact on those in the international trade and customs community.

A summary of some of the highlights is set out below.

Major Ambitions

The Agenda sets out four major ambitions which are to be pursued by the Government.

  • A lower cost-business friendly environment with less regulation, lower taxes and more competitiveness markets;
  • A more skilled labour force.
  • Better economic infrastructure.
  • Industry policy that fosters innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Agenda then goes on to identify the way in which these objectives will be pursued through new reforms.

New Reforms

To achieve the "ambitions", the Agenda sets out a number of specific proposals.  Of relevance to those in the international trade and customs industry in Australia, these proposals include the following (generally adopting the words in the Agenda).

  • Accept trusted international standards and risk assessments so that if a system, service or product has been approved under a trusted international standard or risk assessment then Australian regulators should not impose any additional requirements unless there is good and demonstrable reason to do so.  Specifically, the Government will now require the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme ("NICNAS") to "better utilise and increase its acceptance of international risk assessments materials from trusted overseas regulators".  This will be part of a broader reform to introduce a "graduated, risk-based approach to the regulation of industrial chemicals".
  • Increase domestic and international competition by way of working towards concluding a FTA with China and to consult with industry to co-design a "Trusted Trader Programme" ("TTP") to streamline customs procedures.  The proposal is that the Government will work with other Governments to facilitate trade through international trusted trader arrangements consistent with the B20 recommendation for practical trade facilitation through cuts to red tape.
  • Encourage State and Territory Governments to remove those remaining barriers that restrict foreign investors in professional services firms forming certain types of legal entities.
  • Continue to examine coastal shipping regulations.
  • Continue to encourage foreign investment including appointment of five Senior Investment Specialists to Austrade from the private sector.
  • Respond to recommendations in the final report on Competition Policy to increase competition and drive innovation and productivity.

Preliminary Commentary

For the international trade and customs industry, many of these reforms will not be of significant surprise given that they have been foreshadowed by Government in other forums and have been recommended by other industry associations including the Export Council of Australia.  It is interesting that a number of the recommendations contained in the Trade Policy Recommendations from 2013 issued by the Export Council of Australia ("ECA") are already contained in the Agenda and that the ECA continues to work toward a number of the proposals contained in the Agenda.  Further, other industry associations such as the CBFCA are already heavily engaged in the de-regulation agenda and are also involved in the Industry Advisory Group ("IAG") convened by the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service to assist with the development of the TTP.  I am also a member of the IAG.

Some other items worthy of noting are as follows.

  • The Government has promised an "early access programme" to the TTP, open to a limited number of exporters to commence in March 2015 with phasing-in of the full TTP to commence in July 2015.  These are significant commitments given that are still many within industry who are of the view that the TTP is unlikely to proceed.  Government seems adamant that it will proceed and it will be initiated at a very early stage.  Those who are interest can let me know and I am happy to assist.
  • While the Agenda speaks in general terms regarding the advance of the FTA Agenda, there are no specific proposals as to the way in which there will be increased engagement and use of our FTAs to improve competitiveness.
  • There is a general commitment to provide better economic infrastructure although that is mainly aimed at road and some rail.  However the proposal to appoint a Senior Investment Specialist to Austrade to facilitate foreign investment in Australian infrastructure will be welcomed.
  • Although there is a commitment to a one-stop shop for environmental approvals, that has not been proposed for approvals from all other border agencies (and this would be welcomed!).
  • The commitment is only to "examine" coastal shipping regulations without a commitment to adopting any specific reforms including any reforms arising out of the current Government Options Paper.
  • There is no reference to a commitment to deal with the current arrangements under Part X of the Competition and Consumer Act which allow international shipping companies to work together to set certain arrangements regarding provision of services and capacity which may otherwise be in breach of the Act.  There have been proposals that Part X be removed and for the international shipping regime to be subject to the same competition arrangements as applies to other parties.  However, there is no reference to this within the Agenda even though a number of parties have pointed to the inefficiencies which Part X creates (such as the ACCC).

The Agenda certainly emphasises the commitment of the Government to certain reforms.  However, many of those reforms are already in place and being implemented in the international trade and customs environment.  Clearly, these are vital.  At this stage there are not significant additional and specific proposals for the industry.