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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16412

Mrs CROSIO (3:57 PM) —I rise and join my colleague the honourable member for Rankin in speaking against the motion before the House that was introduced by the member for Cook. I too believe that the public debate has not been as open as it could be, considering the momentous economic changes that will eventuate from this agreement. I would ask the member for Curtin, who has just spoken, why, if we are so open in what we are doing and in the information we supply, the Congress and the Senate of the United States have a vote on whether they go ahead with the free trade agreement with Australia, but we in this country have no vote whatsoever?

The conservative side of the House, as well as a number of people in the corporate sector, have expressed their strong support for the agreement and, as in today's motion, they have argued that Australian exporters will benefit by a significant increase in access to the US market. They seem to have a firm belief that US companies will gladly open up access to Australian competition, particularly in the agricultural sector. However, history indicates that the US agricultural sector is amongst the most protected in the world, with only the EU and Japan exceeding the level of subsidies provided to US farmers. Will US farmers gladly open up their markets to the highly efficient Australian farmers? I doubt that they will accept competition and, politically, I doubt that the relevant political parties in Congress would risk losing seats on this issue. What I can see coming out of this FTA is that Australia will have to open its doors further to US multinationals, and that we will do this on US terms. That is why I am expressing my strong opposition to this FTA.

A number of economists, including my colleague the member for Rankin, are opposed to the agreement, due to the fears that they have for the world trading system. At the moment, a disturbing trend is emerging where regional trading blocs are slowly being developed. This can only be harmful for Australia and Australian exporters. There is no doubt that, for a middle sized economy like Australia, a strong, workable multilateral trading system is best. Our efforts through the late 1980s and early 1990s in establishing the Cairns group during the Uruguay round of talks show what a government can achieve if it is willing to roll up its sleeves and do the hard yards through what are often long and arduous negotiations to bring about what we have seen; that is, agriculture on the GATT agenda.

Governments have a duty to do what is in the national interest, not what is in their political interest. I have a horrible feeling that the Howard government are in the midst of indulging in what they have developed as an art form—pushing domestic political considerations into the foreign policy domain. They believe that an FTA with the US will be popular with the community; however, I think they have miscalculated this time around. The government is also breaking another golden rule, mixing trade with foreign and security policy. These should not be intertwined; in fact, great dangers could present themselves in the future if disagreements on the trade front affect strategic relationships.

The American security alliance is a bedrock of Labor's foreign policy. It is one of the three pillars. Even though we disagreed with the US about the invasion of Iraq, we are still close, and we know full well that US involvement in our region is crucial for our national security. With trade, things are different. Our farmers compete with US farmers for access to global markets, and we are constantly disturbed by the lack of access to the US market. My understanding is that opening access, particularly in the agricultural sector, will take many years.

I would like to turn to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This scheme, as we all know, has been part of our Australian health system for half a century. The PBS, we have been informed, is now on the FTA negotiating table. What does this mean? It means that the scheme of providing affordable medicine to those in need is now under threat in this country. The giant US pharmaceutical companies do not want the Australian government to subsidise the cost of medicines. They want to be able to charge consumers at the market rate. This would have a terrible effect on the frail and elderly in our communities. A group of pensioners in my electorate wrote to me recently, expressing their concern about the proposed AUSFTA. In particular, they were concerned about the future of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. We already know that the government is trying to increase the cost of essential medicines by 30 per cent and that this is being thwarted in the Senate, but what will happen if this comes up as part of the agreement?

Another reason I am opposed to the proposed FTA relates to the impact it will have on trade in our immediate region. Asia currently buys 55 per cent of Australia's exports; it is overwhelmingly our largest market. However, this government has been eroding that market share over the last seven years, and in recent times while our exports have slumped dramatically the imports of our major trading partners have increased. In other words, those economies are growing and are ripe for our exports. What is occurring is that the EU is grabbing a greater share of the east Asian market, at the expense of our exporters, and this FTA will not help them one bit. (Time expired)