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PM English mounts case for free trade with $90 mln package

Friday 24th March 2017

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Prime Minister Bill English wants to bring the public on board with a new trade strategy that will inject an extra $90 million to chase more deals and build on existing relationships. 

Speaking to International Business Forum and Auckland Chamber of Commerce, English unveiled the government's new trade agenda until 2030, which will see $80.1 million of new operating spending over the next four years and $11 million of capital spending, setting up new missions in Ireland and Sri Lanka, beefing up funding for primary sector exports, expanding Ministry of Foreign Affairs trade work, and establishing a new group to inform the public about the benefits of trade. 

His efforts come at a time when there's growing antipathy to free trade among western developed economies, with the new US Trump administration embarking on an 'America First' approach to trade and nationalistic European political groups gathering support. Treasury and Reserve Bank officials have warned the growing tide of protectionism poses a major threat to New Zealand's economy, which relies on strong trade links.

"Ultimately, free trade is why New Zealanders are getting ahead and they now see a country confident in itself, more prosperous - more certain of sustained success," English said. "While many countries continue to push for open borders and greater integration, the voices of protectionism have grown both internationally and even within our own parliament. The biggest threat to our economic success at the moment is disruption of international trade."

Of the new funding, $35.3 million has been earmarked for the Ministry for Primary Industries to focus on boosting the sector's exports, including addressing the growing tide of non-tariff barriers that are being put in place. Some $20.3 million will go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to improve market access, maximise benefits from existing FTAs and negotiate new ones, and Mfat will get another $6.7 million to strengthen international networks and lift the availability of consular services.

The government will also set up a ministerial advisory group with representation from iwi, unions and NGOs and industry bodies for primary industry, wood, tourism, education, horticulture, aviation and technology, with a goal of better informing the public about the benefits of trade. 

"I am often bemused by opposition to free trade. It makes me think that governments have done a poor job of explaining the benefits," English said. "They are indisputable. Our lives would be poorer without free trade."

Still, English said free trade "can lead to significant change for some industries" which "can be painful for some people working in those sectors", however with the appropriate level of support from the government, people have "shown an impressive ability to adapt and to thrive."

The new trade agenda will also set up a clearing house to inform exporters about new non-tariff barriers, which have been introduced at an accelerating pace since the global financial crisis, increasing delays and costs for firms looking to sell their wares overseas. 

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