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Wednesday, 5 March 2003
Page: 9298


Senator O'BRIEN (5:27 PM) —I am pleased to support the motion to take note of this report. I congratulate the Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit on its review of Australian quarantine functions. I want to address the term of reference concerning the impact of international agreements on quarantine activities, including proposed bilateral free trade agreements. From the government's point of view, formation of the free trade agreement between Australia and the United States is this nation's key trade focus. The WTO Doha Round negotiations have faded into the background as the Howard government has turned its full attention to the proposed FTA with the United States. So skewed has the government's focus become that yesterday the Minister for Trade, Mr Vaile, signalled that the government had just about given up on success at the World Trade Organisation. According to Mr Vaile:

... we cannot discount the possibility that the WTO round will not deliver a result—in agriculture, or in any other sector for that matter.

This is the sort of defeatism that only a trade minister who is not up to the job would engage in. Success during the Doha Round is crucial for Australian exporters, particularly exporters of agricultural commodities.

Equally important to our agricultural sector is the maintenance of our quarantine barrier. In part, that is why the government's focus on an FTA with the United States is of such concern to so many of our rural industries. The fact is that the United States has our quarantine system firmly in its sights. I want to tell the Senate what the US administration told the US Senate about its ambitions for our quarantine system. The Bush administration's Special Trade Representative, Mr Robert Zoellick, wrote to the US Senate on 14 November last year. He said:

We recognize that an FTA with Australia is of particular interest and concern to the U.S. agriculture community. Making progress on a number of issues of concern to U.S. agriculture will be essential for the successful conclusion of these negotiations.

Mr Zoellick specifically identified our quarantine system as a target, again saying:

... several US agriculture interests have raised serious concerns about Australia's use of sanitary and phytosanitary measures as a means of restricting trade.

For those who are not aware, that is a reference to the measures relevant to our quarantine system.

This week the Minister for Trade made a song and dance about Australia's objectives in respect of negotiations about an FTA with the United States. The government has been much more reluctant to tell the Australian community about the United States objectives, which include, in addition to diminishing our quarantine barrier, the dismantling of our single export desks for wheat, sugar and rice. On Tuesday this week, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Mr Truss, said the government would defend our quarantine system and the single desk. What he did not say is that these issues are on the table and subject to ongoing negotiations with the United States. How do we know this? Because that is what the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Senator Cook and the estimates committee during the recent estimates round.


Senator Boswell —They don't make the decision.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Hutchins)—Order! Senator Boswell, if you want to make an interjection, you should come and sit back in your seat.


Senator O'BRIEN —Yes, I think you should remind Senator Boswell to be orderly in his conduct in the Senate chamber. Just three weeks ago, Australia's senior free trade agreement negotiator told a Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade committee—and he should know—that:

The government's consistent position in relation to the FTA negotiations with the United States has been that no sector or issue would be excluded from the scope of the FTA negotiations.

The clear position of the government is that no sector or issue is excluded from the scope of the free trade agreements negotiations. As a matter of fact, the committee was told that `nothing is ruled out'.

Compare that statement to the assurance given by the minister for agriculture to farmers earlier this week. Mr Truss said our quarantine system and the single desk would not be on the negotiating table. This government has a well-deserved reputation for verbal dexterity on matters of honesty. In this case Mr Truss, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the senior FTA negotiator cannot all be right. The government is running with the hares and hunting with the hounds: on the one hand, fronting up to Senate estimates and telling the truth—that is, that it is all laid out on the table and up for grabs: quarantine, the single desk, the lot— but, on the other hand, turning up to farming meetings and saying that the government would not think about giving up the right to manage our quarantine system. This issue is particularly important in the context of the import risk assessment management process that Senator Watson touched on.

I understand that informal discussions between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and industry representatives have raised the outcome of the current import risk assessment processes concerning chicken meat, pig meat and citrus, which have been identified as matters that may be of interest to the US free trade agreement negotiators. The government says that the free trade agreement negotiations will not compromise the integrity of our quarantine standards. That is all well and good, but the government must also commit to ensuring that the integrity of the import risk assessment process will not be compromised. I am concerned that, while the priorities that underpin our quarantine standards may survive the FTA negotiations, they will survive in name only—that is, the integrity of the import risk assessment system will be diminished.

I am also concerned that the import risk assessment process will be compromised through reducing the number of steps in the process, the time available for each step in the process, or a combination of both of these actions. Taking short cuts in an IRA process is a dangerous move that may risk hundreds of thousands of rural and regional jobs. I understand the government is placing pressure on Biosecurity Australia to release a draft import risk assessment for uncooked chicken meat before serious negotiations with the United States commence. That would be a deadline based not on a considered process but on a need to gain some leverage in upcoming trade talks.

I am also aware that representatives from a company known as Smithfield, the third largest pork producer in the United States, were in Australia in January looking at strategies for marketing their product in this country—


Senator Boswell —They might want to—


Senator O'BRIEN —Their product from the US, Senator Boswell. That company is clearly backing the Bush administration to get the right outcome on pig meat in the upcoming free trade agreement negotiations. Most of us have an understanding of the threat to our domestic industries from uncontrolled disease outbreaks. Australia is blessedly free from many animal and plant diseases that afflict our international competitors, but the difference between our situation and theirs is sliver thin. The only difference is the foresight of previous governments in establishing a comprehensive, rigorous and science based quarantine system—the system which complies with the WTO rules and serves our national interest.

It is vital that the government stands up and defends the integrity of our quarantine barrier. That is the clear message received by the committee in written submissions and evidence. It is a message that Labor acknowledges and understands. It is disappointing enough that the government has given up on the reform of agricultural trade barriers through the WTO, but I am calling on the Minister for Trade to reconsider his defeatist approach. I call on the government to come clean on what is really up for grabs during negotiations on the free trade agreement with the United States.

I want to congratulate the participants in the inquiry. I was not part of it, but I think it has done a very good job. I want to acknowledge the many individuals and organisations that provided submissions and evidence to the inquiry. The interest in the inquiry is due to the evidence of the important role that quarantine plays in protecting our rural industries, our natural environment and the health and welfare of the people of Australia. Any attempt by the Howard government to undermine our quarantine regime will be at its peril. I referred earlier to a document, a letter from Mr Zoellick, which I seek leave to table. (Time expired)

Leave granted.