Proposed developments in digital transformation and enhancement of trade to assist the position of SMEs

17 April 2019

This article was first published by Daily Cargo News.

Technology has contributed to improvements in trade and is seen as one means to facilitate improvements. For example, many parties are looking to Blockchain as a means to enhance both the speed and safety in the movement of goods. Most contemporary Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) include provisions to facilitate customs procedures and trade as well as chapters on assisting e-commerce. In one excellent example, the FTA Portal by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) comprises up to date information on the terms of our FTAs in a way which makes it easier for parties to understand the FTAs and take advantage of them.

Government and its agencies are not the only part of these initiatives. The private sector is also actively involved, not only in its commercial self-interest in selling technologies but to share in the benefits from a secure and rapid supply chain.

Further, the government and its agencies are working collaboratively with the private sector to advance these initiatives. One place that can be seen is through the National Committee on Trade Facilitation (NCTF) which is convened by the Department of Home Affairs (DoHA) to include agencies operating in and around the border and the supply chain such as the Australian Border Force (ABF), the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources (DAWR), the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS), Austrade, the DFAT and other agencies. I am the chair of the Private Sector Group (PSG) at the NCTF comprising associations and entities such as the Australian Industry Group, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Ports Australia, Shipping Australia, the Customs Brokers and Forwarders Council of Australia (CBFCA), the Export Council of Australia (ECA) and the Food and Beverage Importers Association (FBIA). The NCTF has a number of advisory committees including the Trade Facilitation Initiatives Working Group (TFIWG).

TFIWG has a number of items in its agenda including the Australian Trusted Trader Programme and the development of the single window for trade and other trade facilitation initiatives. At the most recent NCTF meeting late in February 2019 the PSG proposed a number of strategic topics to be advanced as part of the NCTF work programme including a review of recent reports and inquiries which have recommended initiatives to enhance trade, with a specific focus on bringing home advances in the trading environment to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). This would require review of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry into trade and the digital economy, the findings of the joint research report by the Australian and NZ Productivity Commissions into Growing the digital economy in Australia and NZ – Maximising opportunities for SME’s as well as the Parliamentary report on SME access to FTAs.

A relevant starting point are the recommendations of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Trade and the Digital Economy:

  • Recommendation 1 – The Australian Government, as a matter of priority, should create a single portal of information, with particular regard to exporting digital goods and services.
  • Recommendation 2 – The Australian Government, as a matter of priority, creates a single window trading system, with particular regard to exporting digital goods and services.
  • Recommendation 6 – The Australian Government should continue to promote digital trade standards, both technical and regulatory, with an emphasis on openness, technological neutrality and interoperability.
  • Recommendation 10 – The Australian Government investigate ways to assist Australian SMEs to improve their cyber security awareness and resilience levels.
  • Recommendation 11 – The Australian Government should require all agencies when developing policy, legislation or trade agreements to consider whether what is proposed is technologically neutral and whether it could create barriers to the digital economy, including by limiting interoperability.

The review by the New Zealand and Australian Productivity Commissions subsequently endorsed similar recommendations with a focus on assisting access for SMEs by way of a single window and similar interoperable functionality.

The recently released report of the Parliamentary Committee into access to FTAs by SMEs again endorsed similar recommendations including the following:

  • Australia should continue to embrace an expanding network of high-quality FTAs (recommendation 1)
  • Minimising non-tariff barriers affecting SMEs (recommendation 2)
  • Making FTAs more relevant to Australian SMEs by including specific SME chapters or specific obligations to assist SMEs to access trade opportunities in future FTAs (recommendation 3)
  • The Australian Government review the resourcing of agencies and programmes to assist Australian SMEs (recommendation 5) including funding for Austrade and assisting access to Export Market Development Grants (EMDGs)
  • Establishing a single trade window for SME exporters to guide them to education, products and services that meet their needs, and improve the access of SMEs to a centralised source of trade resources, from government agencies such as DFAT,  Austrade, DoHA, DAWR, Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (EFIC), DIIS, and the Department of Jobs (DOJ) and Small Business (recommendation 6)
  • Inviting the active participation of industry representative bodies, such as those representing customs agents and freight forwarders, in FTA awareness and education programs to educate SMEs about the export services their members provide (recommendation 8)
  • Embracing e-commerce as a key enabler of trade and including e-commerce as a key feature in future FTAs including delivering simplified, user-friendly digital resources and trade technologies to assist SMEs by making it easier to find the export information required for each trade agreement (recommendation 9)

There are some consistent themes across all of these reviews and reports. That there is a need to continue with the FTA agenda with an emphasis on the interests of SMEs and to embrace technological change to assist SMEs in taking advantage of those benefits. The crucial issue then becomes how government and the private sector can secure those outcomes. There certainly are various technologies available in the market place which assist the providers of cargo movement services but they are probably too sophisticated, too complex and too expensive. As a starting point, what is needed are technology tools and procedures to assist SMEs and to ensure that they can secure the benefits of FTAs and other initiatives. These are not easy outcomes but the PSG has referred the issue to TFIWG with a specific recommendation to develop a form of single window containing all the basic necessary information for SMEs on the regulation of trade to allow them to engage in import and export. As an outcome it would be a starting point before developing or facilitating more sophisticated programs.

The groundwork has been researched and the agenda has been set. It is now vital for government, its agencies and the private sector to continue to invest and work in the work program with the view of delivering the best outcomes for all in a way which will survive political and ideological change. This friendly neighbourhood customs and trade lawyer will continue to work towards that end including spending lots of otherwise free time on the issues as the outcomes are important for all those in the supply chain and the wider economy.