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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16410


Dr EMERSON (3:46 PM) —This motion notes progress on negotiations towards a US-Australia free trade agreement. That goes to the heart of the problem because the general community has no idea what progress has been made. The reason for that is that negotiations are occurring behind closed doors. If this is such a great deal, why is the public being denied access to the information that is held by the officials and members of this government? The negotiations are secretive and that is cause for concern. It is also cause, legitimately, for some suspicion.

The member for Cook spent some time talking about opportunity and spent no time talking about cost. I want to spend a little bit of time today talking about the costs so that the Australian public has a better understanding of what is at stake here. Some of the costs that may well be incurred as a consequence of these negotiations are in areas of vital importance to the everyday lives of the Australian community. For example, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is on the negotiating table. There is no point listening to the government saying, `It is on the negotiating table but we are not really negotiating it.' It is either on the negotiating table or it is off the negotiating table. The fact is that it is on the negotiating table and American drug companies do not like Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which provides low-cost prescription medicines to Australian families. The reasons they do not like it are twofold: first, it suppresses prices that they can obtain for prescription medicines; and, second, if it were to catch on around the world then Australia's world-class system of providing low-cost medicines would be replicated around the world and suppress prices received by these same American drug companies around the world. There is legislation before the Senate—a double dissolution trigger—where the government wants to impose higher costs on Australian families using prescription medicines. It raises the concern that the US-Australia free trade agreement may well be the backdoor way of getting through measures that the government has been unable to get through the front door of the Senate. Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme changes are front and centre in that regard.

I move on to local content for Australian film and television. We have a right in this country to protect our culture and our cultural heritage. And yet on the negotiating table are the rules that guarantee a minimum level of Australian content for Australian television. Another very important issue that is on the negotiating table is Australia's quarantine service that protects Australia from overseas diseases and pests. All Australians would want to see no watering down and no weakening of Australia's quarantine system that has served this country so well—yet it is on the negotiating table. Again, the government says, `It is on the negotiating table, but it is not being negotiated.' If that is the case—and it is not—then take it off the negotiating table. But to the question, `Is it on or off the negotiating table?' the answer is, `Everything is on the negotiating table.' The single desk marketing arrangements for wheat and other products are on the negotiating table. Also on the negotiating table is the foreign investment review board that screens foreign takeover proposals to ensure that they are in Australia's national interest. In terms of the economic benefits that are claimed for this agreement, it would involve the full sale of Telstra and the abolition of the four pillars policy for Australia's banks.

Finally, we need to be aware of the response of countries in East Asia, which takes 55 per cent of Australia's merchandise exports, to Australia's engaging in a preferential trade deal with the United States. If those countries formed their own regional trading bloc and retaliated against Australia's taking this initiative we would be in appalling trouble. Our nightmare scenario is the formation of an East Asian trading bloc where we would not be a member. We would have to go back to the United States and the other members of the North American Free Trade Agreement and seek entry to NAFTA on terms determined by the members of that agreement. That is a nightmare scenario. It is a significant risk, and this government should be honest and describe the full range of costs to the Australian community instead of simply talking about opportunities. (Time expired)