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Wednesday, 23 June 2004
Page: 31322

Mr TUCKEY (5:50 PM) —At the beginning and at the end of the member for Griffith's speech, he delivered a great commentary on how the next—if ever—Labor government would operate. His argument to this House today is, `Why don't we just let the American congress decide and we might just be lucky enough—from Labor's perspective—to have them knock it back.' Then, in typical style, Labor need do nothing. That is his plea, and of course his other plea is that we have to let that other house, which a one-time Labor Prime Minister referred to as `unrepresentative swill', be the sole determiner of the views of this parliament.

The previous speaker, the member for Hotham, kept telling us that it was the parliament that appointed the Senate committee inquiring into the free trade agreement between Australia and the United States. No, `the unrepresentative swill', to use the terminology of one-time Prime Minister Keating, appointed the committee. The committee that the parliament appointed was the one chaired by the member for Boothby, who has tabled a report and has read some sections to us and given us a most amazing piece of information, which is that the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004, which we are supposed to be debating here, do not include anything to do with the PBS, because in fact the review mechanism does not require such a piece of legislation. So, despite all this repetitive exercise of `the PBS, the PBS, the PBS', it is no more part of this legislation than Papua New Guinea—which, I might add, seemed to get more coverage from the member for Griffith than the details of the bill.

We got a wonderful history lesson from the member for Griffith. I am an admirer of Curtin—I think he was a great leader—but I am not sure what he has got to do with this free trade agreement, although I might add that trade in his life was a lot freer than it has been more recently. We had the highest or second highest standard of living in the world then. It tended to decline once people abandoned the view of free trade in the Australian economy.

But the member for Griffith spent four minutes on his introductory remarks on the bill. He then—surprise, surprise!—thought he had better throw some insults at the foreign minister, which were unnecessary. Even he is prepared to admit that this debate is one of high policy—probably one of the most important that will be discussed throughout the three years of this parliament—and all he wanted to do was have a little dig at the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Then he ran off on a wonderful historical treatise. If this was a university lecture room, I could have seen the reason for it, but in terms of this debate and what it means to the Australian people he said nothing.

The clear message from the two speeches made today, one by the opposition treasury spokesman and one by the opposition foreign affairs spokesman, was, `Can we just keep our heads down? We'll say nothing. We won't refer outside the PBS to any part of the great initiatives and benefits or, if you like, to where the benefits could have been better. We'll just keep our heads down. We'll plead to let the congress of the United States get us off the hook. We'll plead for the Senate inquiry.'

I said in this place yesterday of the Senate inquiry that I do not know why they call witnesses. I do not know why they go through the farce of all those processes. What they should do, having been appointed to the committee, is all go home and write their report, because up there all their minds are made up before the actual evidence is taken. It is just a process of trying to get out there and stir things up. It is like getting petitions. Petitions have never influenced anybody in this place. They are used by members of parliament to enrage the community. And that is what a Senate inquiry is about, because of course the majority vote up there typically opposes anything that the government of the day tries to do.

So I thought to myself, `That's pretty good.' But both the member for Hotham and the member for Griffith tried to rewrite a bit of history. I think it was the member for Griffith who told us that it was the Hawke government that created APEC. I do not think that is incorrect, but he did not add that the trading entity of the Asian region is ASEAN, and throughout the Hawke government they were never invited to attend. What is more, up until very recently nor was the Howard government. Why has that changed? I cannot give you a reason, but I can give you some facts.

It is the most amazing thing—and the member for Griffith put a powerful case for multilateralism along with bilateralism, a process which we are totally committed to, as evidenced by the way we hung in there and now chair the Cairns Group, which admittedly commenced under the Hawke government—but since it has been clear that Australia has negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States, and notwithstanding that we were told by every expert, including, I think, Ross Garnaut, that to do that would enrage the nations of Asia, guess what has happened? Australia has been invited into ASEAN, the trade negotiating entity which neither the Hawke government nor, previously, the Howard government could get invited to. In other words, this very agreement has not reduced our chances for more trade agreements within the Asia region; it has enhanced them. We have been invited into what is the Cairns Group of Asia, if I can use that analogy. So that has been a little step of progress.

Imagine the circumstances proposed to this House by the member for Hotham and the member for Griffith—that we should wait for the US Congress. If they pass it, what would we look like if we knocked it back? If we severely and sincerely want this deal—as this government does—surely a positive vote from this parliament is going to enhance our prospects in the US Congress. Of course we should conclude the matter before it goes over there.

There is a well published list of what we would lose if either the US Congress did not agree with the decisions of its executive or the same applied here. We would be denying Australian farmers significant market access. We would leave Australian exporters of autos, metals, minerals, seafood, paper and chemicals—to name just a few—at a competitive disadvantage against other suppliers from Canada, Mexico, Chile, Singapore and other countries that have signed up.

This is not just a case of having to deal in the American market. Were we to knock this opportunity back, we would be disadvantaged in that marketplace by all the others who saw the benefits and have ratified already. We would strand Australian businesses looking to crack the $200 billion federal government procurement market in the United States and, as the minister advised us the other day, I think some 27 individual states—about half the total number—have also agreed to give us access. What might that mean?

Mr Fitzgibbon —What about their access to our market?

Mr TUCKEY —Of course, they have got it. We have never prevented them from having it. We do not have those sorts of special deals federally where we give preference to local providers. But now we are going to get that opportunity in America. The Australian newspaper today tells us that American hospitals are going to start buying, as a matter of policy, syringes with retractable needles. In fact, it suggests that one of our companies that have got high level technology in this regard are likely to be involved. How much better is it going to be for our biotechnology companies to become involved in supplying that market because we have got a free trade agreement and a guaranteed access? Who buys these needles typically? State governments in America and the federal government buy them, because they run the hospitals. That is a market that is opening up at the moment. A decision has been made in America that it is time that their hospitals use retractable needles, for the very obvious reason of preventing needle stick injury et cetera.

Failure would expose our exporters to US global safeguard action under the WTO. Under the FTA the impact of Australian imports would be assessed as a matter of course by the US. It would abandon Australia's access to the most liberal agreement on services and investment the US has ever made. Why weren't the members for Griffith and Hotham mentioning those things and saying, `For these reasons, we support it'? The answer to that is very simple, and it was mentioned by the member for Boothby. Two of the witnesses were the ACTU—no case, just opposition—and, of course, Dougie Cameron. He's against everything. He cannot even get along with his own union mates anymore. He is a Neanderthal.

Mr Cox —What are you, Wilson?

Mr TUCKEY —You ought to have heard me on hydrogen yesterday, mate. Anybody who can promote the next fuel for this country is not a Neanderthal. That is where you come from, as I said. You, particularly, have an interest in turning lead into gold. Let me say there is plenty of lead on your side.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Barresi)—The member for Kingston will refrain from interjecting and the member for O'Connor will come back to the bill.

Mr TUCKEY —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your protection. I certainly need it in this hostile environment. The reality is that all of the intelligent persons sitting on the opposition benches know there is more good than bad in this free trade agreement. Privately, they would like to support it and satisfy their own constituencies out there, who think Australia will benefit. But, of course, the guys that still hold 50 per cent of the preselection votes have said, `We don't want it.' Therefore, as evidenced in the last two speeches, they thought, `How do we weasel our way out of this?' and, in what was clearly a caucus decision, they said, `We will go in there and we will talk about the US Congress. We will talk about a Senate committee,' when they know in their own minds what Keating said—and he was pretty right. `We will do anything at all to not have to take a decision, so that we do not offend our Labor union masters and we do not offend the Australian people,' who, of course, are conflicted on this issue. So they come in here with all this weasel talk.

Those opposite did not address any of the significant issues other than this furphy about the PBS. The member for Hotham was talking about greenfielding or whatever and the effect of patents on price. Patents used to run for 20 years; I think they might now run for 50. Just how many medicines in this day of technology are still in demand in the period of patent? I know we have a few generics. Aspirin has hung around. But there are so many things being superseded by new inventions that it is not going to be a significant component, even if there were some truth in the claims that somehow or other this FTA would push up the buying price to the PBS, not to the Australian people.

That is the other furphy that has been presented: that somehow or other, if there were—and we say there will not be—any price effect arising out of these arrangements, it would directly transfer to the Australian people. That is just not the way the PBS works. The cost to the Australian people, of course, is the co-payment—a Labor government invention. They got it up to about 20 bucks, as I recollect. That is the only cost. It is totally irrelevant to the cost to the broader taxpayer. If that happened to go up a little bit—and I say it will not, not arising from this free trade agreement—then in fact the scheme would not collapse, nor would it represent a greater cost to individual Australians. It is a furphy. But it is not there because the people who say it believe it—not the intelligent ones, anyhow. I guess there are some people on that side with the same intelligence quotient as Dougie, but the reality is that the rest of them know the benefits outweigh anything better we would have liked to have had—not the negatives, just the things that could have been better.

I have read a list, in a negative sense, of who will be the losers if we do not have the free trade agreement, and the most amazing thing is the attitude of the ACTU—the Neanderthals. Isn't it funny that the people who are making the biggest fuss in the United States are trade unions! They are the ones who put their foot on Monaro exports at 18,000. Why did they do that? If our vehicles that are travelling to other parts of the world are so overly expensive and underperforming, why would the unions worry about them coming in? They are going to stay on the shelf. From what I read of the Monaro, it is not going all that well, but it seems to be going a lot better in the UK. When I last talked about free trade in the US Congress with a couple of congressmen, they were terrified of Australia. They were telling us that we would flood their markets with horticultural products. I was at pains to remind them that we probably could not feed their nation for a fortnight with all our production.

It is a furphy that there will be some rush of super-cheap items and competitive influences coming out of the US. They are coming out of China now. I will tell you what: there are a lot of mothers with two or three kids who in the next few weeks will be spending their $600 for each child on Chinese clothing for their kids, and they have never been able to clothe their children so cheaply. It adds considerably to the welfare of that family and to the quality of food and other things they can buy.

To suggest that this FTA in any way should be delayed while the Americans make up their minds does not say much for the intelligence of this parliament. That is now the foundation of Labor's debate: we have to wait for the Senate—a mob of people who have never faced the Australian people. A typical senator is elected by about 50 or 60 Australians, since we have had the tick-a-box system. You just have to convince your electoral council that you are the best and, arguably, you could go away on a holiday. The Labor Party says these are the people who transcend the elected members of this House—people who have had to fight for their seat, with each and every one of the 80,000 voters making up their mind. What an outrageous proposition: submit to the American Congress; do not give them leadership; do not let our supporters over there get up and say: `The Aussies have committed. What are you blokes doing?' No, they are cowering in a hole, according to the Labor Party, waiting for you to make up your mind, and a high percentage of them are hoping that you will vote against it so that they are absolved from having to make a very serious decision for Australia.

How long would we stay in ASEAN if we dropped off the perch on the American free trade agreement? We would be sneered out. One thing about the Asians is that they like winners and they back winners; they do not support losers, as is being promoted in this weasel approach that is quite clearly the theme we will hear again from the member for Kingston in a moment, I am sure, unless he has airbrushed his speech, having heard my comments. (Time expired)