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Parliamentary Committee backs single digital 'window' for Australian trade

Australia has poor trade data, so the committee has recommended the government fix its disparate information and consolidate it into a 'single window' view.

The Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth has conceded that Australian government responses to the digital economy are hindered by insufficiently detailed and accurate data, asking that a window trading system, with particular regard to exporting digital goods and services, be created as a matter of priority.

The single window, the committee demands in its report into trade and the digital economy [PDF], must be developed with a focus on interoperability to ensure rich data flows can be maintained and transmitted across borders.

It heard during its hearings that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is "committed" to establishing a single window for trade, and to allow businesses to lodge all documentation for imports, exports, and transit-related regulatory requirements through a single portal.

"The single-window trade approach ... will reduce the regulatory burden on Australian businesses. Therefore, the committee encourages the government to continue with this program as quickly as possible," the report says.

The report notes that currently, 30 government agencies have regulatory touchpoints relating to border management.

"A single window system would mean that traders could supply information once and have it transfer across all relevant agencies," it continued.

According to the Department of Home Affairs, 70 global economies have implemented a single window trade system.

Home Affairs, the department responsible for the latest tranche of Australian national security legislation, told the committee it is working with relevant government agencies to develop this single window approach to trade, noting it will "require reform of the legislative, regulatory, technical, and operational processes that currently enable cross-border trade".

The committee, charged with looking into the "responsiveness of Australia's trade architecture and regulatory system to the contemporary needs of the digital economy and disruptive technology", made a total of 11 recommendations.

Another request from the committee that it wants treated with urgency, is the creation of a single portal of information, with particular regard to exporting digital goods and services, including information about the development of digitally-native processes.

"Several witnesses pointed to the poor quality of trade data as an inhibitor to better understanding of, and policies relating to, digital trade," the committee wrote.

Home Affairs proposed during the committee's hearings a whole-of-government approach to modernise Australia's trade process, noting its desired single "touch point" approach to managing trade in May, saying it was looking to emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, and the Internet of Things (IoT) for a suitable framework.

Expanding on the approach proposed by the Peter Dutton-led department, the committee said a single portal would allow the government to have visibility of end-to-end supply chains and access to real-time intelligence information on goods traded and the entities behind the transactions.

"Intelligence and risk assessment capabilities and revenue collection are improved by new and emerging technologies, such as blockchain, to ensure the veracity, validation, and analysis of intelligence and trade data," it wrote in a list of proposed trade modernisation steps to be implemented over the next decade.

"Border examination processes are integrated, automated, and outsourced ... and international trade end-to-end processes managed by government are digitised and automated."

Expecting the project to modernise Australia's trade system to involve "significant expenditure", Home Affairs wants the cost to come from the pockets of many government entities and industry partners.

"Currently, those interested in trade and digital economy issues must navigate a series of agencies, websites, and documents, as well as responsibilities which sometimes overlap," the committee said, highlighting the sensible approach would be consolodation.

"New approaches, rather than a mere digitisation of existing systems, are required for Australia to reap the full benefits of the digital economy. The technologies of the digital economy allow a complete rethink of what systems are designed to achieve, and will be put to their best effect when that rethinking happens."

Another issue highlighted during the hearings was that data collection practices have not caught up to the reality of practice, noting that while statistical data on goods traded traditionally is "of a very high quality", statistics on digital trade is poor.

"In the absence of solid information, and no agreed mechanism for collecting the relevant data, policymakers, and others are reliant on 'best guess estimates'," the report says, noting the consequence of this is that policy is being developed on the basis of an underestimation of the digital economy.

The report continues to say that improved data quality that accurately reflects modern business practices would therefore result in a better understanding of the digital economy and lead to more informed policymaking.

It also highlighted that some witnesses feel the government's trade system is being formulated by people without sufficient understanding or appreciation of the centrality of digital technology to the economy, and that digital expertise has not risen to the upper levels of the public service yet.

Australia's Ambassador for Cyber Affairs Dr Tobias Feakin instead suggested that Australia's expertise was under-rated.

Echoing what the CSIRO's Data61 said in a report it published this week into digital innovation, the committee also said the digital economy offers the opportunity for Australian businesses to create entirely new services and export those to customers around the world.

"Businesses can expand beyond their current operations and export their expertise and innovation," it wrote. "Doing so would result in Australia moving 'up the food chain', as one witness put it: 'Not just digging stuff out of the ground and exporting it but also exporting [our] smarts'."

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