Keynote Address to the 80th Anniversary of the Trade Commissioner Service
26 February 2014
Old Parliament House, Canberra
The Trade Commissioner Service is a proud institution in Australia's national life.
So I am honoured to be here to celebrate the 80th anniversary of a service that has helped Australian businesses so much over the years and which I am sure will continue to do so for the next 80.
I have always appreciated the efforts trade commissioners have put into helping Australian exporters and investors.
Exporting is tough business. Markets are not fair, there are competition barriers, language and cultural difficulties and ways of doing business overseas that are not acceptable to Australia.
More than ever, Australian business is looking for new markets to Asia, the centre of world economic growth and the source of our biggest export markets.
Partly as a result of these dynamic trends in our own region, the need for the trade commissioner service is alive and well in 2014.
At present, 71 commissioners are working to promote Australia's interests in 46 countries.
All in all, the Service has an outstanding history of success to reflect upon at this 80th anniversary celebration.
The Trade Commissioner Service
Even before Federation, in the late colonial era of the 1890s, governments and business were becoming aware of an important truth about successful exporting.
This was the growing need to place our own commercial agents offshore, where they could promote Australian exports and gather commercial information.
This need was acted upon in the period after the First World War that culminated in the appointment of the first designated Commonwealth trade commissioner, Edward S. Little, to China in 1921.
The rationale was that exporters could be helped through the strategic placement of trade commissioners in difficult but promising overseas markets.
To be sure, the private sector should lead the way on exporting but the view was that government could help as well.
At the time, there were some who disagreed with the idea of a service of Australian trade commissioners, largely on the grounds of cost, economic philosophy and imperial preference—a view not entirely extinct today.
So it was a long and at times difficult road from that pre-Federation period to the Trade Commissioner Act of 1933, which was passed in this great old building amid the gloom of the Great Depression.
Once established, however, the Service soon proved its worth and Australia's need for trade commissioners is still as real today as it was then, possibly even more so.
Today exports create about 20 per cent of Australia's Gross Domestic Product, while exports and imports combined comprise about 42 per cent of GDP.
This has had a direct impact on the well-being of Australians. About one in seven jobs results from exports; about one in five if jobs related to imports are also included.
Along with foreign investment, trade represents one of the main conduits by which Australia can benefit from Asia's economic rise.
Now that this nation is really open for business, our strong hope is that our trade commissioners will play an even more important role in helping to create a more prosperous Australia.
Achievements of the Service
In 80 years the service has achieved great things.
By the 1960s, it had established a global network of trade offices that provided services to Australian companies. At the same time, their officials gathered commercial intelligence about opportunities, trading partners and market trends.
This information also helped to inform the trade agreements Australia has reached over the years.
One of the earliest was the commercial treaty with Japan in 1957, which led to Japan becoming Australia's number one trading partner for many years. Another was the Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relationship agreement of 1983. The latest is the Korea Australia Free Trade Agreement, or KAFTA.
Another consideration was that unless a buyer knows you exist, there will be no point of sale.
Marketing our national strengths was and is critical in the quest to expand trade.
In this light, the service helped to foster an image of Australia as a modern, dynamic economy.
Individual companies have also greatly benefited from the Service, including innovative manufacturers whose products are now sold throughout the world and which have global brand recognition, such as Cochlear's ear implants and Resmed's sleep apnea technology.
Another area where the Service has shown its strengths has been in the way it has adapted to the structural shifts in the global economy.
It has had to be flexible and targeted in its assistance but also more focused on analysis and insights into global economic processes.
As a general rule, trade commissioners have gone where the opportunities exist. Over the years, trade offices will open and close and then open again as a result of shifting commercial trends.
New markets open up in such places as Burma or Mongolia, and trade commissioners have to be prepared to support businesses in those newly opened markets. There are more Austrade offices than embassies. Austrade is the face of Australia in many nations.
The dramatic economic rise of Japan after World War 2, for instance, was an opportunity that was grasped to great effect through Australia's 1957 commerce treaty with Japan.
The creation of the European Union and all that meant for our trade with the UK was another major challenge for our exporters.
After Britain joined the European Community in 1973, Australia took decisive steps to create new markets for wheat and meat in Africa and the Middle East.
And of course the spectacular rise of East Asia and China is a major historical change that was both a challenge and an opportunity for the Service.
Although the Service itself has been flexible, the personal qualities required in a trade commissioner have not changed.
Right from the beginning with Edward S. Little, our first designated trade commissioner, language skills have been a priority along with commercial experience, and an ability to engage governments and business networks.
Trade commissioners need to have the requisite personal drive to secure commercial wins for Australian exporters in often challenging circumstances and environments.
Over 80 years the world has become bigger and faster, offering more opportunities but also more challenges.
As a result, the Service has evolved into a considerably more complex organisation that includes the promotion of inward investment, international education and tourism policy and research.
Trade commissioners are now focused, for instance, on attracting inward foreign direct investment to specific sectors, such as infrastructure, agribusiness, education, energy and resources. This investment represents an important source of economic growth just as exports do.
Our future prosperity depends on restoring private sector initiative and utilising competition to deliver wealth and jobs.
We can do that by reducing red tape, living within our means as a nation, as individuals and firms, taking more responsibility for ourselves and backing our strengths.
Those principles also apply to trade and investment, which add to growth and to national prosperity.
The trade commissioner service has helped Australia to develop an export industry worth more than A$300 billion a year.
Let me put that achievement into perspective.
On the eve of the Trade Commissioner Act, a little more than eighty years ago, Australia's total exports were worth $210 million (in 2002 dollars).1
So to all of you congratulations on belonging to an institution that through its unique esprit de corps has contributed so much to our nation.
The search for new markets can never really end. That's the nature of economic competition. It never stops.
And neither will the need for talented trade commissioners, the men and women of Australia who assist our businesses and thereby help build our national prosperity.