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Wednesday, 4 August 2004
Page: 25567

Senator SANTORO (10:07 AM) —I have already made a contribution in this place on the matter of the free trade agreement with the United States. In an adjournment speech at the end of the June sittings I set out in considerable detail the argument in favour of the FTA from my perspective—and that, I believe, of the majority of Australians. I will not repeat that detail today. But it would be useful, in light of some of the contributions we have heard from those opposite in this debate, to briefly canvass some of the major points again. The report of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties into the proposed free trade agreement, tabled at the end of June, clearly defines the time line for negotiations—the time line that Labor has self-servingly suggested was too short or insufficient for proper consideration.

The proposed FTA was announced on 14 November 2002. That was when negotiations formally began, but both sides of politics in both countries had been considering the concept of an FTA for at least 12 years. Negotiations between the trade representatives of Australia and the United States took place in five rounds between March 2003 and February 2004 in Canberra, Honolulu and Washington DC. The proposed agreement—the outcome of the detailed negotiations—was agreed at Washington on 8 February 2004 and signed at Washington on 18 May 2004. The Australia-United States free trade agreement was tabled in the Australian parliament on 8 March 2004.

I believe that Senator Conroy was being a little disingenuous yesterday when he claimed that there was no rush because Congress had only recently passed the American bill and President Bush had not yet signed the agreement. President Bush has now signed it and he was on television this morning giving an ample demonstration of what real leadership is all about. This is a critical time in Australia's trading history and Mr Latham wants to play politics instead. He is doing so because he cannot handle the Left of his party. If he cannot manage something that is so obviously in Australia's national interest—and he believes the trade agreement is, apparently, since he wants to sign up for it—then what trust can the Australian people have in his capacity to fight a real battle for the country? The answer simply is: none. And that is a real worry for Australia and Australians.

But, in the spirit of consensus in great causes and in speaking on the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004, I say to the Leader of the Opposition and the Labor Party, or at any rate to those parts of it that have finally won the day on the agreement: welcome to the court of commonsense. Mr Latham's was a very belated conversion. It must have been caused not so much by a blinding light as by a very dull ache. Perhaps the donkey was very unwilling or lost its way. It must have had some trouble following the signposts to this particular Damascus. It was very late but not, in the end, too late. It is a pity Mr Latham could only make it after making an ass of himself.

Now he appears to be determined to make a Kilkenny cat of himself as well. He says that Labor will fight like these animals to insist on and get passed into law the minor amendments it wants and which, in its wisdom, it has declared to be substantial and matters upon which it will not compromise. The Leader of the Opposition, I respectfully suggest, must be very careful. There were only ever two Kilkenny cats and they fought each other until there was nothing left of either of them. Is this what Mr Latham really wants to make of his leadership and his party?

Senator Conroy got it absolutely right yesterday morning. I am told he was looking a little harassed in one of the news grabs on breakfast television when he said in effect that a deal that is in some small respects less than perfect is better than no deal at all. I wonder how harassed he and his can't-make-up-his-mind leader looked when they were in the caucus room yesterday morning, arguing that rational and sensible point. I am sure that Senator Conroy, if not his leader, knows that consensus is nine-tenths of any successful outcome. The issue for Australia is how to mesh ourselves into the world's largest, most dynamic and freest economy. For Australia, the issue is what Australian business can value add to the FTA, and what business is saying is that it can add a great deal of value.

We need to remember too that it is not just the government that has promoted the free trade agreement and worked so hard to achieve it. Strong leadership has also consistently come from the business sector: from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, from the Business Council of Australia and from the Australian Industry Group. The ACCI said yesterday:

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), Australia's largest and most representative business organisation, has welcomed the news today that the ALP caucus has resolved to support enabling legislation to bring the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement into effect.

ACCI looks forward to its speedy passage through the Senate.

The AUSFTA is one of the most important bilateral commercial and economic agreements this country has seen. For Australian business, the AUSFTA represents the difference between a market for our human capital, agricultural and manufactured products of just 20 million and one of over 300 million people.

It is a free trade deal with the single largest economy in the world.

The Business Council of Australia released this statement:

BCA President, Mr Hugh Morgan, said business recognised it was a difficult issue on which to reach political agreement but the right decision had been made in the national interest.

“While progress had been made on WTO talks in recent days, the US FTA remained a critical part of Australia's trade strategy,” Mr Morgan said.

“The implications of walking away from an Agreement that has already been negotiated with the world's largest economy would have been immense.”

These are the bottom lines that really matter. Essentially, the Labor Party's difficulty in coming to grips with reality simply does not matter, except to the extent that its own problems impact on the capacity of Australia to advance to the fullest and prosper to the maximum.

On that score, it is interesting that the Labor Party has offered to pass the legislation provided that two amendments it proposes and which Mr Latham has declared non-negotiable are made to it. The amendments, as most serious commentators have stated, are minor. They appear to be aimed at assuaging baseless fears in interest groups Labor is desperate to keep on side, and will have very little effect on the actual working of the agreement once it is in place. They are essentially irrelevant to the arguments previously advanced by the unreconstructed wing of the union movement, which is not interested in patents or in keeping control of Homer Simpson's appearances on Australian entertainment media. Those are side issues to the more sensible wing of the union movement, as represented by the Australian Workers Union, which wants the FTA.

It is a pity that Senator Ludwig is not in the chamber to convey my appreciation to his father, Joe Ludwig, who, on occasions, makes some very sensible statements on behalf of his union, the AWU—statements which, in this particular case, have pleased the business community.

The Labor Party wants to have its modified FTA and add layers of meddlesome, politically controlled bureaucracy to the process. It proposes to establish a commission of inquiry to look at the impact of the FTA on manufacturing, especially automotive components, clothing and footwear, and will be announcing terms of reference for such an inquiry. It says it will protect Australian media, film and television production, copyright, the PBS, blood and plasma products and a host of other things.

The question is: would Labor's proposals deliver these protections in any form more substantial than provided for in the agreement now signed and awaiting parliamentary approval? That is a moot point. It is suggested by some commentators that Mr Latham is playing clever politics and by others that he is being too clever by half. I incline to the latter view. What we are seeing is some fairly clumsy grandstanding. It provides no reason for confidence that when we get into a real political campaign—the election campaign—Mr Latham will have the bottle for the fight. What we have seen over the FTA reveals the Labor leader to be without true commitment to principle and his party to be devoid of vision. That is the most pressing national danger.

It is interesting in this context that leadership has even come from the state Labor premiers—indeed all of the state Labor premiers. The only place leadership has been lacking, to the extent that it has often been invisible, is in the Labor Party and specifically in its own leader. It has been the Leader of the Opposition alone who until yesterday showed no leadership on this issue. It has been the Leader of the Opposition who has displayed throughout this saga the very antithesis of leadership. He had to wait for this report and that report. He had to wait for advice he was going to get from someone or other, who was somewhere or other. He was, as everyone knows, simply playing a delaying game for crass political purposes, even internal party purposes, and not considering the facts of the matter or the future of his country. We know why he did this. He did it because in the position he now holds, as the head of the fractured and dysfunctional federal Labor Party, he is a reed who bends before every little populist breeze. The Leader of the Opposition is not focused on Australia's position. He is very focused on his own position.

Australia seeks to broaden and brighten our future as a trading nation and to increase by quantum sums our national prosperity. Against this, the left wing of the Labor Party decided that the issue was protection for industry and protection for unions. They wanted to rush back to the past, to the closed shop and the import barricade, not knowing, or perhaps not caring, that in the global age in which we live you have to value add, not value subtract. The Labor Left, along with the Greens and the Democrats, are the true primitives in this debate. They are unable to comprehend that time has marched on and that they are fighting a war that everyone else stopped fighting years ago. The Greens, as we know from the evidence presented in this place by Senator Brown and only a few minutes ago by Senator Nettle, would like us all to go back to living in bark huts.

The Democrats seem to be having some considerable difficultly keeping themselves honest, let alone worrying about their perceptions of the level of honesty in other parties. On this issue, like the Greens, they are banging the drum for an Australia that does not exist and simply cannot exist these days. They appear to be arguing for Australia to become a curious little biosphere all on its own. In this they are apparently joined by Senator Lundy of the Labor Party, who says she fears rampaging Americanism will subsume if it does not submerge the true voice of Australia. Commonsense, Senator Lundy, tells us this will not occur.

Senator Lundy —Are you quoting me?

Senator SANTORO —The bill we are debating consists of nine schedules that amend relevant Australian legislation to fulfil Australia's obligations under the FTA. Unless specifically noted, the provisions of the bill will take effect—

Senator Lundy —Mr Acting Deputy President, I raise a point of order. I think Senator Santoro was purporting to quote me and I am asking him to clarify whether he was quoting me or trying to imply that I had said something that in fact I had not.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Brandis)—There is no point of order. Interjections are disorderly. If you claim to have been misrepresented there is an appropriate procedure at the appropriate time.

Senator SANTORO —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I have just referred to some of the notes that I have made in relation to speeches and comments that have been made. If I can find the quotes that have led me to make the statements I have made about Senator Lundy I will read them out. Otherwise, I am sure that during another contribution I will become even more specific as to why I formed that particular opinion.

Senator Lundy —Oh, so it is an opinion.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Crossin and Senator Lundy, cease interjecting.

Senator SANTORO —They are very sensitive on the other side because they know that, if I can put it metaphorically, they have been caught with their pants down. They made statements prior to the cave-in of the Left yesterday. Senators opposite, including those who are interjecting, have obviously made statements that these days they regret. They simply do not like opinions, let alone facts, being shoved down their throats. If the hat fits, you should wear it, and I am sure we will be able to get you to wear it many more times before this debate, not just in this place but in the broader community, is finished.

Unless specifically noted, the provisions of the bill will take effect on 1 January 2005 or when, subsequent to that date, the Australia-United States free trade agreement comes into force. Briefly, schedule 1 amends the Customs Act, schedule 2 replaces the existing data protection regime for agricultural and veterinary chemicals, schedule 3 amends the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation Act 1980 in relation Australian geographic indications for wine, and schedule 4 amends the Life Insurance Act 1995. Schedule 5 amends the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975 to introduce an indexed screening threshold of $800 million for American acquisitions of Australian businesses except those in defined sensitive areas where the threshold will be $50 million, and schedule 6 amends the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act 1997. Schedule 7 amends the Therapeutic Goods Act 1989, primarily to provide that an applicant seeking to include therapeutic goods in the Australian register must supply a certificate protecting patent. Schedule 8 restricts the grounds on which a patent may be revoked and schedule 9 amends the Copyright Act 1968.

For the most part, objections to these proposed legislative changes are misplaced, along with the fears that we are told drive them. The wider interests of Australia today and, more importantly, tomorrow—given the capacity of business to add further value to operations in a freer environment—will be best served by swift passage of this legislation so that from 1 January 2005 we can all begin to benefit from AUSFTA.

I think the Minister for the Arts and Sport, Senator Kemp, made an excellent point yesterday that deserves repeating. Answering the colourful claims of the first two speakers, Senator O'Brien for the Labor Party and Senator Ridgeway for the Democrats, on these bills—the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004—he reminded us that the Howard government rigorously pursues the national interest. Senator Ridgeway in particular took an extremist position on national sovereignty but, as Senator Kemp pointed out, Labor in government up to 1996 signed treaty after treaty which impinged on the sovereignty of the nation and the Democrats never raised a squeak; they never raised an objection. Senator Kemp said that Labor had got itself into an absolutely hopeless mess. It had laboured mightily for five months and got absolutely nowhere in relation to what we are discussing today in this place. But I think that we should pay credit where credit is due, and I want to specifically mention in that context the contribution of Senator Kirk to this debate yesterday. I believe she captured the kernel of the real argument very neatly when she said:

In the past, Australia has directly benefited from trade liberalisation. Reducing trade barriers boosts our economic growth, creates a more competitive industry environment, provides benefits to consumers and builds stronger relationships with our trading partners. Labor has always fought strongly to ensure that the benefits of such economic growth are equally shared. The US-Australia free trade agreement promises all of this for Australia.

That is exactly the argument and those are exactly the reasons that the Senate should pass this legislation. They were put forward by a Labor senator opposite.

We should not see this agreement with the United States in isolation. It is a crucial agreement—indeed, it is a vital agreement—but it is not a stand-alone agreement. It must be seen in the context of the increasing web of bilateral agreements on trade that Australia has entered into and our continued chief focus on the mechanisms available in the World Trade Organisation. Any agreement provides for ongoing review on a formal and an informal basis. Those particular safeguards for review are built into this agreement. This is an agreement to sign off on now so that there is a legislative base for Australian enterprise and entrepreneurship to add more and more value to their work and to our national prosperity.