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Wednesday, 4 August 2004
Page: 25559


Senator McGAURAN (9:34 AM) —I rise to continue the contribution I made last night to the debate on the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004. What a difference 24 hours has made. The Labor Party have already found a new way to deadlock the free trade agreement—indeed they are attempting to scuttle this agreement. Having announced that they will support the free trade agreement, they have put forward an amendment that this government finds unacceptable—in fact it is unnecessary and unworkable. So we now have a deadlock situation.

The Labor Party are trying to find a way to get out of the free trade agreement—something they have wanted to do from the very start. This debate has taken on new tension and a new dimension. They can rest assured that the government's support for the free trade agreement is uncompromising. The Labor Party are trying to reach the point they have always wanted—that is, to scuttle this agreement under the cloud of the protection of the PBS. Behind that cloud, we all know there is a deep-rooted anti-Americanism within the Labor Party, particularly their left wing.

When I was speaking last night I was coming to the benefits of this agreement to the primary industry sector which need to be spelt out yet again to the opposition and to those listening to the broadcast of these proceedings. Probably no sector will benefit more from the free trade agreement with the United States, the largest economy in the world, than the primary industry sector. It is obvious. Australia's primary industry sector exports 80 per cent of its product. It lives or dies on its export markets. So it is quite obvious to the rural sector that this new access to the largest economy in the world can only be of benefit. It is basic farm economics. It is about the livelihoods of those in the farming sector. That is why all parts of the primary industry sector—not just the farm gate but all the industries that rely on the farm gate product—support the free trade agreement.

Enough material has been disseminated and put out by the National Party Minister for Trade, Mark Vaile. The rural sector know only too well the benefits that will come from this agreement for the beef industry. They have stated clearly that they support this agreement. The market will open up over an 18-year period. Of course we would have liked a shorter period, but the market will open up in stages over an 18-year period until we have full access to the largest market in the world. The dairy industry will benefit. Every single industry will benefit, including industries that have never had access to the United States, such as the horticultural industry, including citrus.

I could read out in detail how every industry will benefit from this agreement, but I do not have the time. All the material is there. It has been there for the opposition to read. Take a small but growing industry like the avocado industry. It has been growing by 10 per cent annually over the last few years. Because of the tariffs imposed on that industry, it has never been cost-effective to export to the United States. With this free trade agreement, those tariffs will be abolished completely and the industry will have access to the market of the United States. So for just one industry, the avocado industry, it is absolute boom time. That is an example of the benefits of this free trade agreement for the primary industry sector.

As I say, it is basic farm economics: export or perish. What could be better for the rural sector than to have access to the largest economy in the world? The primary industry sector has been hanging around waiting for the World Trade Organisation to come to some free trade agreement itself, to drop the barriers of Europe. If you waited for Europe to do this, you would be waiting a very long time. The rural sector has been knocking on the door of Europe since the fifties, with very little success. In the last couple of days there has been an announcement to the effect that the World Trade Organisation has taken yet another step—always small steps—in freeing up Europe and other major markets for primary industry. But the point is that we cannot hang around. The primary industry sector cannot hang around for multilateral or World Trade Organisation agreements. We have to make our own one-on-one agreements. This is the best and most advantageous free trade agreement yet to come before Australia, and we would be fools—and every other country would think we were too—to forgo this once in a lifetime opportunity.

It is not just the primary industry sector that will benefit from the agreement. All industries have come out to support this free trade agreement. There has not been one industry that has not supported it. The pharmaceutical industry issued a statement on 26 July supporting the free trade agreement. The Chief Executive Officer of Medicines Australia said, `It is a mechanism that will strengthen and enhance the transparency and accountability of the operations of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.' We put those mechanisms in place in regard to the free trade agreement. They welcomed the release of the independent review of applications to list medicines. They have no concerns at all.

The automobile industry also support the free trade agreement. Contrary to what the union tell you, the automobile industry think they will have open access and will be able to trade one-on-one with the United States, to export cars to the United States at a greater cost benefit than they can now. It might surprise some on the other side that the automobile industry in Australia are very competitive and already export cars to the United States. This agreement gives them greater access, greater freedom, greater ability and greater cost-effectiveness to export to the United States.

Another beneficiary of the free trade agreement is one of Australia's biggest exporters and one that has brought great wealth to this country over the years—that is, the metals and minerals industry. We will see tariffs drop for the steel industry and the aluminium industry. They have always had difficulty in the past in entering the largest market in the world. Under this agreement they will have greater access than they have ever had.

There are very few industries that do not support the free trade agreement—on balance. That is a term used by those opposite. The agreement has pluses and minuses. We wish we could have achieved more, but on balance every single industry will benefit from the free trade agreement and none will be worse off—not even the sugar industry for that matter. We regret being unable to write them into this agreement; the reasons were so politically obvious. But we were not going to sacrifice the whole agreement for the sugar industry. Make no mistake: the sugar industry will be no worse off with this agreement, as is so often painted by those on the other side.

With all the evidence in for the opposition to read on the advantages available to industries, with all the generational opportunities before us, why wouldn't you sign this agreement? Yet we read in the papers today that the Labor Party are digging their toes in, looking for yet another reason not to support the free trade agreement. When this government first decided to start negotiations, to start talks, with the United States—before this agreement was negotiated or detail was put on the table—the Labor Party were against it. The Labor Party were even against the initial talks on this agreement. That has been their original stance. Let us not kid ourselves or dress it up in any other way: they are seeking not to support the enabling legislation today. Let us not forget that from the very beginning they were against this free trade agreement and were looking for ways to scuttle it.

The reality of politics and economics came crushing down on them and they had to change that stance. For the last five months they have said, `We're thinking about it, but we're going to wait for a Senate committee to advise us on what our policy should be.' What a joke. Everyone in this chamber knew that that was a joke—a deferring tactic, a dithering tactic—and for five months we have watched the opposition split, fight and dither about this once-in-a-generation free trade agreement that is before us. It could have been signed months ago, and we could have got on with business, but it is still on the agenda. But it is coming to a head now.

Now we have this new twist: this flaky idea of an amendment to protect the PBS. I am not a lawyer—I am a trained economist—but I have done some work in copyright and patent law. I know that this amendment is unnecessary, as the Prime Minister said, and it is unworkable. What is more, the safeguards for such `dodgy practices', as the Labor Party would have us believe they are, are already in place. An article in today's Australian put it more succinctly:

Freehills partner Paul Jones said that deciding whether a claimed patent was of substance already came before the courts. “I would consider any attempt to codify patents as spurious or dodgy as completely impractical,” he said.

The article continued:

Mr Jones said it was hard to see how a court might impose penalties on a company for defending an approved patent.

In other words, the Labor Party are putting up this amendment as an excuse to not support the free trade agreement. It must stupefy Senator Conroy and those who have always supported the agreement but have never really had the courage to say it that they are now in this position. The free trade agreement is back on the agenda. It is possibly an election issue and one that they know they will lose. The free trade agreement is in the national interest. (Time expired)