Executive summary

This report reviews one proposed treaty action: the Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement (AI-ECTA). The Committee received a request from the Minister for Foreign Affairs to expedite its consideration of the AI-ECTA and agreed the exceptional circumstances presented were such that it would report in 13 joint sitting days rather than the Committee’s convention of 20 joint sitting days.
Negotiations for a trade agreement with India have been long running and are continuing: the AI-ECTA was described to the Committee as an ‘early harvest’ agreement in advance of a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement.
As such, the AI-ECTA is not as comprehensive in its scope and coverage as other trade agreements Australia has signed. Aspects such as comprehensive rules of origin and services commitments remain to be fully negotiated.
Nevertheless, it was put to the Committee that each Party offered commitments in services that are on par with the best commitments offered in other free trade agreements. And though some sectors have understandably expressed disappointment about the outcomes in trade in goods, Australia has obtained some tariff reductions in key export commodities.
It should go without saying that the value of a trade and investment agreement does not stand entirely on market access and investment rules, though these are certainly important. Trade agreements also operate as broader instruments of bilateral or plurilateral engagement. India is a like-minded partner of great significance and even greater potential in the Indo-Pacific region, committed as Australia is to the rule of law, open markets, and stability. Pursuing and strengthening such relationships is a central and laudable element of Australia’s foreign policy.
While the outcomes in this agreement may not be as far reaching as in other recent agreements, the AI-ECTA has established a framework through which Australia can pursue future liberalisation, market access, investment opportunities, and the shared pursuit of principled regulation in areas that require global cooperation, like environmental protection, and labour rights and standards.
As a matter of consistency and diligence, the Committee also took the opportunity during its inquiry to examine past issues of concern, specifically, the extent and quality of consultation, transparency in negotiations, and the value of independent modelling and analysis of trade agreements.
In particular, the Committee reiterates its view that trade agreements cannot be adequately assessed, nor their progress and outcomes tracked to an appropriately high standard, in the absence of independent modelling and analysis. Trade agreements are the product of negotiation and trade-offs. Some sectors will benefit, others do not, and there can be unwanted or at least extraneous economic and social impacts. Other than assisting the proper understanding and assessment of a negotiated trade agreement, such information is required for public policy decisions to ensure such agreements represent the achievement and protection of Australia’s interests to the greatest possible degree.
The Committee nevertheless supports this treaty action and recommends binding treaty action be taken.

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