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Wednesday, 13 August 2003
Page: 18408

Mr BAIRD (3:17 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Trade. Is the minister aware of media reports of comments by United States Undersecretary of Commerce Grant Aldonas about the implications for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in the United States free trade agreement negotiations? Would the minister inform the House of recent developments in these important negotiations?

Mr VAILE (Minister for Trade) —I thank the honourable member for Cook for his question. I acknowledge his interest in—and, of course, his very strong support for—our ambitions in our negotiations with the US for a free trade agreement. I am aware of some comments, reported in today's media, made by Undersecretary Grant Aldonas with regard to the PBS. I have had a discussion today with Undersecretary Aldonas. He has, in fact, been on ABC radio today clarifying his position and that of the US in this regard and indicating that that particular story, which was printed this morning, was partially a misrepresentation of his intentions and what he had to say. He has said that the US is not trying to rewrite the Australian health policy and that both the US and Australia need to be sure the existing arrangements deliver the goods for our citizens. We certainly agree with that.

He also acknowledges that many of the issues associated with the PBS are not in the scope of the free trade agreement. For the information of the member for Cook, throughout the year we have had lengthy discussions with US negotiators and explained the structure of the PBS and the way it works. That included a number of meetings that I have had with the USTR, Ambassador Bob Zoellick—most recently about two or three weeks ago in Washington—explaining exactly how the system works in Australia. As part of those discussions, I have spent a fair bit of time drawing a comparison between the structure here and the formulatories that work in the US. The US negotiators have a much better understanding of how the system works. To that effect, US chief negotiator Ralph Ives earlier this year said publicly that the US `is in no way going after the PBS'. He went on to say:

Let me stress ... that the FTA will in no way affect the basic framework of the PBS or the way medicines are delivered to Australians.

Our government's position is very clear, and we have enunciated it on many occasions. Our position is that, whatever proposals the US may put in the FTA negotiations, our government is not going to negotiate away our ability to provide good public policy for the Australian people—and that includes in the area of health. The PBS is recognised internationally as a model system for formulatory management. It provides subsidised access for individuals to a wide range of high-quality, cost-effective medicines at a cost that both individuals and the community can afford.

Given that Undersecretary Aldonas is in Australia for the Australia-America leadership dialogue, I will take the opportunity of having further discussions with him in Melbourne on Saturday. Those discussions will include issues surrounding the FTA negotiations and the WTO negotiations. Again, I will reiterate our position on this particular issue, as I have outlined it to both Ralph Ives and Bob Zoellick.

I think it is important that the House note that, if there is any threat to the PBS system that operates in Australia today, and the sustainability of the PBS system in Australia today, it does not come from the United States or our proposed free trade agreement but from the Australian Labor Party, which will not pass in the Senate the government's legislation that will ensure the sustainability of the PBS system. That responsibility lies with the Labor Party. If they pass our legislation we can ensure the sustainability of the PBS system. The threat does not come from our negotiations on the FTA.