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Ian Murray reviews the role of government in export, particularly the giant steps Mark Vaile has taken in putting Australia on the global map.

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We often debate what influence government has on our trade performance, particularly in export, and whether things would change much if governments in general left industry to simply get on with the job of selling products and services overseas as people have been doing for thousands of years.

In Australia, government has had a substantial influence on trade going back to the time Jack McEwen, who in the 1950s pioneered the then unpopular concept of opening up trade with Japan, which has gone on to become our strongest trading partner.

The influence, of course, is only partly that of government and its policies. It’s probably more about the people who formulate and drive the trade agenda. In Australia we have been blessed with several outstanding trade ministers from both sides of politics. People like the late Peter Cook, whose passion for export was quite extraordinary, and Tim Fischer, who, with hat in hand, capitalised on every opportunity to sell Australia’s wares.

Mark Vaile is also one of those people. Not only passionate about building Australia’s trade performance, Vaile was devoted to seeing a world in which big and small can compete in a fairer, more equitable trade environment.

After McEwen and Doug Anthony, Vaile is Australia’s third longest-serving Minister of Trade. During his seven years in the trade role our exports have grown from $92 billion to $192 billion, and are likely to top the $200 billion in 2006. We've seen enormous growth in the resources sector, growth in agriculture and manufacturing, and we have really come of age as a major provider of a wide range of services across the Pacific, Asia, and the Middle East.

His greatest passion was the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and here he has undoubtedly made a greater contribution than any who preceded him. Vaile launched the Doha Round, and was permanent chair of the Cairns Group, 18 of the world’s leading agricultural producers. He was a member of G6 (US, EU, Brazil, India, Japan and Australia), the ministerial group responsible for driving the agriculture agenda in the WTO; and a member of FIP (Five Interested Parties), a highly influential group within the WTO. There is no doubt that Vaile put Australia squarely at the forefront of the WTO negotiations. He certainly left the world in no doubt where we stood on world trade.

At the same time he has driven one of the world’s most aggressive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) agendas. After entering into FTAs with Singapore and Thailand, Australia became the first developed country to sign an FTA with the US; with ASEAN, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Malaysia under negotiation. Likely FTAs with China and Japan would see Australia having agreements with countries representing almost 60 percent of Australia’s exports.

On the domestic front, Vaile has strengthened Austrade’s presence in the US and China with 35 new offices, he introduced the TradeStart program, with 60 offices Australia-wide, including eight export hubs in partnership with AusIndustry. The introduction of EFIC’s Headway product aimed at SMEs capped off a sound domestic agenda.

Government does have a big influence on trade, and the people leading the trade portfolio have an enormous influence. In Vaile’s words: “My task is to ensure that Australian access to international markets stays one step ahead of our exporters’ capacity to deliver.” He has certainly worked hard to deliver on this.

It’s also pleasing to see Vaile move to transport and regional services, where cost effectiveness in the supply chain and modern efficient infrastructure are critical factors in building Australia’s export performance.

We wish Mark Vaile well in his new role and welcome Warren Truss to Australia’s premier portfolio.

* Ian Murray is executive director of the Australian Institute of Export.

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