Originally published in The Canberra Times on April 10, 2014

Like buying a house, it’s easy to get a free trade agreement if you don’t care what you get or how much you pay. Since coming to office, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has closed a number of free trade agreements in record time, and it shows. 

The so-called free trade agreement with Japan ensures Australia will not be able to export a single grain of rice to that country. Some tariffs will fall slightly, over the next 18 years, and many tariffs and quotas remain in place. It doesn’t sound very free, does it? 

You should be able to write a free trade agreement on a single page. The key sentence would be “there will be no restrictions on trade between Australia and Japan”. But of course these documents often top 1000 pages because that’s how long it takes to spell out all of the exceptions and exemptions. 

But don’t worry about the details, modern politics is about symbolism. Signing a fat document that lists all of the restrictions on trade between us and Japan is a good look as long as you do it at the Emperor’s house and call it a free trade agreement. It’s a pretty safe bet that no one will ever read it.

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