PM Tony Abbott with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe as he meets with members of Japan's National Security Council in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Kym Smith
WHEN the then minister for trade, Mark Vale, announced Australia's Free Trade Agreement with the United States 10 years ago he promised all sorts of benefits from the deal.
Substantially improved access for Australia's agricultural sector would help our beef and dairy producers and immediate, free and open access to the US market for Australian exporters of almost all manufactured goods and services would help them profit in the world's largest economy.
High on the list of manufacturing beneficiaries was the Australian automotive industry. The 25 per cent US tariff on light commercial vehicles that had previously kept Australian utes out of the US market would be removed immediately and the US automotive market for Australian passenger motor vehicles would grow further.
That was then. Now we know that soon we will not have a car manufacturing industry and hence no future automotive exports to the United States.
And it is not just our car industry that will not reap the rewards of a poor agreement that promised much and has delivered little.
As media reports flood the airwaves with glowing reports of the Japanese and South Korean preferential trade deals Tony Abbott has just concluded, it is worth considering what has happened on the US front.
Unfortunately the story is not a happy one. Our mercantile exports have actually fallen!
In 2004 - the year before the agreement - we exported $9546 million worth of goods to the United States. In 2005, the first year of the agreement and before it had had time to bite, we exported $9262 million.
In the last calendar year, our exports were down to $9244 million.
The picture is even worse if we look at the trade in relative terms.
In 2004 US exports to Australia were 2.15 times the size of our exports to them and in the first year of the agreement their merchandise exports to us were 2.3 times the size of ours to them.
But in the nine years of the agreement from January 2005 to December 2013 their exports to us have grown, so that overall they were 2.47 times the size of our exports to them.
In the latest year, 2013, they were 2.7 times our size.
Now all sorts of excuses can be found to explain this, but the fact remains that the US FTA has not delivered anything like the claimed benefits.
I have no doubt the same will be true of the Japanese and Korean deals and I'm not alone in my scepticism.
In 2010 the Productivity Commission reported on its assessment of Australia's bi-lateral preferential trade deals and concluded that the increase in national income from them was likely to be modest. The commission received little evidence from business to indicate that the agreements had provided substantial commercial benefits.
Nevertheless the Abbott government is pressing on, supported by a media cheer squad that can't be bothered looking at the evidence and is happy to trot out nonsense figures.
Take the claim from Trade Minister Andrew Robb that cars from Japan on average will be about $1500 cheaper because of the Japanese trade deal.
There's a grand assumption in this statement that the tariff cut will be passed on to the consumer. But beyond that the calculation is also wrong.
The 5 per cent tariff on cars is not calculated on the retail price. It is assessed from the customs value of the imported vehicle. The tariff impost on a car that retails for $20,000 is likely to be about $500 to $600. The minister's office claims that the $1500 figure is the reduction on a $30,000 car but even a car that retails for $40,000 does not carry a tariff impost of this amount.
While Australia's automotive industry was to be a beneficiary of the US Free Trade Agreement, the aim of all Coalition governments' preferential trade deals is to assist the agricultural and mining sectors. The 2004 US FTA promised improved access for Australia's agricultural sector.
The Korean and Japanese deals similarly see Australia as a paddock and quarry.
But what of the potential saviour of the Australian economy - services? What special access or rights have Australia gained from our FTA deals for these?
Here the most outstanding ''achievement'' is our acceptance of the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, (laughingly called The Copyright Term Extension Act).
To benefit, among others, the Disney film empire, which was due to see its Mickey Mouse rights expire, we accepted in our US FTA the provision to have copyright extended from 50 to 70 years.
Australia also pushed the US line in its dealings with Korea, so that under the terms of our latest FTA, Korea will extend its copyright laws to harmonise with Australia.
I can't imagine too many Australian writers, artists and filmmakers gaining too much from additional Korean rights. But I can see a few additional dollars flowing to US companies.
For this they should give thanks to the Australian public servants and Abbott and Robb, who negotiated for them.
It is more than a little strange that those who argue for free trade and cuts to Australian tariffs also support the extension of monopoly rights that are as much a cost and impediment to business.
In its assessment of Australia's bi-lateral trade deals the Productivity Commission said that to help ensure that any further deals were in Australia's interests the pre-negotiation modelling should include realistic scenarios and be overseen by an independent body.
Alternative liberalisation options should also be considered.
The commission also recommended that a full and public assessment of a proposed agreement should be made after negotiations had concluded.
You can be sure there will be no such assessment. We will just blunder on with Mickey Mouse deals.