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"We're a small state": Libs poised to downsize grand trade plans

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The Marshall Government is poised to open its promised US trade office in Texas after being knocked back on proposed digs in San Francisco, InDaily understands.

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Trade and Investment Minister David Ridgway did not directly respond to a question about whether he is planning to announce the opening a new trade office, embedded within Austrade, in Houston, Texas, in lieu of a previously-investigated venture in San Francisco.

Documents released to the Opposition under Freedom of Information reveal a request was made to Austrade on behalf of Premier Steven Marshall last year seeking “indicative pricing for office space [in San Francisco] under an Austrade footprint if it is available”.

However, Austrade responded that it was only “able to accommodate one person in our office (the consulate) in San Francisco”.

“Sing out if you need anything else from us!” the correspondence cheerily signed off.

InDaily has been told the Government is poised to announce a US trade office to be embedded within Austrade in Houston instead.

In a statement, Ridgway said: “The Marshall Liberal Government is delivering on its $12.8 million funding commitment to establish five overseas trade and investment offices, the locations of which are chosen to generate the greatest economic benefit for South Australia.

“We look forward to establishing our US office in the near future which will further strengthen our engagement with the world’s largest economy.”

International trade has been a fraught area for the Government of late, with the recent Joyce Review prompting a spate of high-level redundancies within Ridgway’s department.

A pre-election commitment by the Liberals pledged to establish four new overseas stand-alone trade offices, “each headed by a Commissioner”, in Tokyo, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur and an unspecified location in the US.

However, the focus appears to have shifted to embedding staff within existing Austrade offices in these locations, with Ridgway telling a recent estimates inquiry: “Certainly part of the Joyce recommendations were that that made somewhat more sense”.

“Where Austrade has an office… there are some benefits,” he said.

“If they are in the same building as a team of federal departmental people, it makes it a little bit easier. We looked at that opportunity and Joyce thinks that is a sensible way to go… there is less of this silo mentality and we are a small state. We are not New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland. They have much bigger budgets.”

The Liberals’ pre-election policy document also stipulated they would “open a South Australian representative office in Shanghai”, arguing “all the other mainland states have trade offices in Shanghai but South Australia’s representation is limited to an officer embedded in Austrade”.

“We need to be much more ambitious to grow our trade with China,” it said.

The FoI documents revealed a meeting after the election at which Ridgway was present – along with the department’s since-departed executive director Lino Strangis – exploring options for real estate in Shanghai to accommodate at least seven staff – including a commissioner, three trade and investment staff, and three tourism representatives.

The office was opened with some fanfare last year – but contained just one person embedded within the existing Austrade facilities.

“It has been a wonderful opportunity to get back into that market and, of course, we have partnered with Austrade to do that work,” Ridgway told estimates last month.

“Some people have the view that with Austrade it cannot be as nimble or as flexible, but we found it to be a really great opportunity to build that relationship…

“We are a small state. All the expense of standalone offices, as grand as they might be, are very expensive — you have all the overheads — whereas with Austrade we can rent the conference room on days that we need the conference room, we can use the videoconferencing when we need to use the videoconferencing, and we have access to the high-tech facilities and all of Austrade’s network.”

Shadow Tourism and Trade Minister Zoe Bettison said in a statement the latest plans “to rent a desk in a Federal Government trade office” in the US demonstrated that “the Government’s international trade strategy is in tatters with continuing falls in our share of national exports”.

“The Liberals promised in 2017 to open new stand-alone trade offices but have had to back-down after Federal advice that it would fail,” she said.

“This all translates into fewer jobs in a stagnating economy.”

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