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Monday, 18 August 2003
Page: 18706

Mr LINDSAY (3:01 PM) —My question is addressed to the Minister for Trade. Would the minister inform the House of the importance of negotiations—particularly for sugar workers in my electorate—for the free trade agreement between Australia and the United States? What support is there for a successful conclusion to this agreement?

Mr VAILE (Minister for Trade) —I thank the member for Herbert for his question, and of course the workers in the sugar industry in his electorate—and cane growers in all the electorates in Far North Queensland—are very strong supporters of the government's position as far as the negotiations for the free trade agreement are concerned.

The SPEAKER —Order! The member for Rankin.

Mr VAILE —There is broad support for the position the government have taken in pursuing these negotiations. Every government member supports what we are trying to achieve for Australia's exporters. There is strong support from the United States government and there is strong support both from the private sector within Australia and the private sector within the United States. I became aware from reports in the media this morning of some further support that may be coming our way; and that support may be from the Labor Party. `Labor rethink on FTA is welcome' said the editorial in the Australianthis morning. If the move is in that direction, we certainly welcome that, because there is no doubt that the pursuit of the FTA is in the national interest and will deliver benefits to all exporters in Australia. I am sure that the workers in the agricultural industries, the manufacturing industries and the service industries in Australia would welcome this news—as would the six Labor state premiers, who are also supportive of our pursuits as far as the free trade agreement is concerned. Yesterday, the opposition leader on the Insiders program raised a number of questions. He said:

If the bilateral approach, the FTA, is consistent with an outcome in Doha that advantages a broader outcome, then we do support it.

I take that at face value. As we have said all along on this, our bilateral negotiations are aimed at achieving a quality free trade agreement between Australia and the United States. They are also aimed at boosting momentum for the WTO talks that are currently underway in the Doha round. The opposition leader also raised several concerns about the FTA talks and accused the government of hiding the negotiations from the public.

It was interesting to read the Australian editorial today because it managed to answer most of those queries raised on the Insiders program yesterday, such as the questions about WTO consistency. We have always said that any agreement we sign off on will be consistent with our responsibilities under the WTO. The Leader of the Opposition raised issues about the FTA delivering a fair deal for farmers. Of course we are not going to do a deal unless there are advantages and benefits for the farmers; a key reason for our pursuit of this agreement is to improve market access opportunities. This is of particular interest to the member for Herbert because it is about access for sugar producers as well as beef producers, dairy producers and others.

The Leader of the Opposition raised concerns about the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. There has been a lot of public debate about this, and we have been very open and frank about the position we have taken in terms of the PBS. There have been comments made on the public record by US negotiators. US negotiator Ralph Ives has said that they are not going after the PBS scheme. There is a lot of information out there. We have been broadly consulting with industry. I think a lot of the questions raised by Leader of the Opposition yesterday have been answered, and they were certainly answered in that editorial in the Australian today. I noticed in the media today another article, titled `ALP and unions at odds over free trade'. This article raises the issue that there are conflicting signals being sent by the labour movement in Australia. The Australian com-mented on that.

Mr Latham —I rise on a point of order. Under the standing orders, isn't a minister obliged to give his own answer rather than read out what is in the newspaper today?

The SPEAKER —The member for Werriwa will resume his seat. That is a frivolous point of order, as the member for Werriwa is well aware. The minister has the call.

Mr VAILE —The newspaper articles I have been referring to reinforce the position of the government.

The SPEAKER —The member for Rankin is warned.

Mr VAILE —The point that was made in the Australian editorial this morning is:

Labor is still sending out some confusing signals on the FTA, but that is better than the negative signals we were getting three months ago. So now it is time for Mr Crean to assert his authority and get the whole ship moving in the direction of economic common sense.

My point is that presumably that also means moving the ship of the ACTU, who have said they are going to campaign in Washington against this proposal. The ACTU are going to Washington to get Congress to oppose what is in the national interest of Australia. The challenge, therefore, before the Leader of the Opposition is to get the whole labour movement to move towards supporting something that is in the national interest.