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An opportunity for consumer-first trade

The leaders of Australia and the UK have an opportunity to demonstrate what an ambitious trade deal can bring to consumers as well as big business.

April 2018

Trade deals are often spoken of as beneficial for industries – what will the agricultural sector get out of this? How will it impact manufacturing?

However, these deals also have the potential deliver massive benefits to individual consumers, a fact that is all too often left out of the conversation.

The leaders of Australia and the United Kingdom now have an opportunity to demonstrate what an ambitious agreement can bring to the everyday lives of consumers as well as big business.

With the backdrop of Brexit and London as host, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting – with trade at the top of its agenda – seems to have taken on added importance We know that Australia's Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and the UK Prime Minister Theresa May are meeting soon, with a bilateral trade deal top of their agenda.

The talks offer a chance to build momentum for a deal, and with several rounds of discussions already having taken place, Australia seems to be in pole position for an important and symbolic agreement.

There is so much to be gained for both countries. There are economic benefits for big business, of course, and we could see both countries become larger players in their respective import and export markets.

What must not be forgotten in the negotiations is how this presents the chance to provide consumers with cheaper products and services backed by strong safety and quality standards.

But if our governments want to succeed in selling a trade deal to their populations, they need to learn the lessons of ambitious trade deals of the recent past, such as TTIP and TPP.

Both agreements faced significant public opposition because leaders failed to convince families, workers and consumers that there was something in it for them. The TPP and TTIP were brokered behind closed doors, with little information provided to the public about what was on the table, despite detailed consultations with industry groups. When information on the deals was finally released, the benefits to consumers remained unclear.

There are ample opportunities for a UK-Australia deal that works for consumers, delivering tangible benefits that we can all understand.

Few countries share such close social and cultural ties as Britain and Australia, and a huge number of people travel between the two countries each year. Nearly a million Australians visited the UK in 2016 and almost half a million travelled the other way. So why not expand free mobile roaming, which has proved hugely popular with consumers since it was introduced across the EU? This would end the bill shock that often accompanies the end of a holiday, giving consumers more money to spend on other goods and services.

Travellers could also benefit from better rights when flights are delayed or cancelled – an area where rights under Australian laws are much weaker than in the UK.

This would benefit UK tourists who face problems while travelling in Australia, as well as Australian consumers travelling to the UK, and could pave the way for similar arrangements in other international agreements.

The negotiations ought to be a platform for both countries to examine their broken product safety systems - which are failing to keep dangerous goods out of people's homes. A recent Which? investigation revealed that faulty appliances are causing 60 house fires a day, while in Australia, tens of thousands of dangerous Samsung washing machines remain in consumers' homes despite a national recall.

It's also important that any deal does not come at the cost of compromising existing protection levels in each country. Food safety and quality, for instance, are areas that the UK public feels particularly strongly about, and won't want the Government to water down standards as part of an agreement with any country.

As the leading consumer groups in both the UK and Australia, Which? and CHOICE believe that free trade can provide access to better goods and services at fairer prices, but only if negotiators focus on the issues that matter most to consumers – standards, choice, rights and price.

If an agreement between our two countries embraces these concepts and delivers for consumers then it could well set the standard for a new wave of trade deals that enjoy widespread community support – not just for Brexit Britain and Australia – but across the world.