Federal Politics

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Japan free trade deal prioritised over whaling dispute

Trade Minister Andrew Robb says the federal government has prioritised a free trade deal with Japan ahead of a dispute between the two countries over whaling in the Southern Ocean.

Before the election, the Coalition promised to send a ship to monitor Japanese whaling in the area, but late last year, Environment Minister Greg Hunt instead sent a Customs-staffed A319 aircraft, attracting criticism from anti-whaling activists.

Australia has challenged the legality of Japan's whaling in the International Court of Justice, with a ruling expected on the case after the whaling season ends in March.

In an interview with Fairfax Media, Mr Robb said the Coalition was ''just as concerned about whaling as the other side [Labor], but it's about where priorities lie in terms of how we deal with that''.

''Our priority in coming to government is to fix the economic mess we have inherited, so we are focusing on those things that will create jobs in Australia. It doesn't mean we aren't interested or concerned about other issues,'' he said.


''Japan's a huge market, it's one of the biggest economies in the world and we already have a huge relationship, but this would turbocharge it. There is an enormous scope for Australia to provide high-value products and services to a sophisticated market.''

The proposed free trade deal, which could unlock investment and export opportunities in the agriculture, resources and education sectors, was at a ''very advanced stage''.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is expected to travel to Japan, South Korea and China in April, with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expected to visit Australia in July. The federal government is hopeful the free trade agreement will be signed during the July visit.

Deputy chief of the Japanese embassy in Australia Akira Imamura said the deal was close to Mr Abe's heart as his grandfather, former prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, signed the Australia-Japan Commerce Agreement in 1957. Also, Mr Abe himself had started the negotiations over the trade deal when he was last prime minister in 2007.

Trade between the two nations is valued at $53 billion and the Department of Foreign Affairs has estimated the deal, if reached, would boost Australia's gross domestic product by $39 billion over 20 years.

Mr Robb also confirmed an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism could be included in the agreement, as it was with Korea in December, despite criticism it could allow foreign companies to take legal action against the Australian government.

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