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Wednesday, 4 August 2004
Page: 25583

Senator CHERRY (11:22 AM) —I speak today on two aspects of the free trade agreement: how it affects Australian agriculture and how it affects Australia's media industry. There is no doubt that, when you look at the agricultural negotiations, there are some pluses and minuses. The dairy industry has certainly been lobbying the Democrats very intensely, arguing that there has been some significant opening up of markets with respect to the dairy industry. In other areas—such as peanuts and some horticultural products, and even some meat products—there have been some changes to quotas. I believe that the benefits to some of these industries have been massively overstated by the government. For example, the phasing out of the quota on beef imports ignores the fact that we have exceeded the quota on beef imports only once in the last 10 years. But the big negative for Australian agriculture—other than the fact that the sugar industry was completely left out—has been the treatment of the quarantine service. That is what I want to talk about today.

The signing of the US free trade agreement is very bad news for Australia's farmers, who want to see Australia's rigorous science based quarantine system protected. The agreement will increase pressure on Biosecurity Australia in the future to water down our tough stance against possible plant and animal diseases by allowing US trade officials to have a say in our import risk assessment processes. The Minister for Trade has emphatically denied that this will occur. But to deny it emphatically is to ignore the political reality. We are giving the US trade negotiators a place at the table in our determination of quarantine issues. With a place at the table, it is inevitable that that will lead to more pressure to water things down. What will the US trade negotiators, with their place at the table, be arguing for? It is very simple: more access to Australia's markets for US products.

In the last two years we have had two very contentious IRAs involving the United States—one involving pig meat and one involving Californian table grapes. Certainly in the case of US table grapes, the US were very dissatisfied with the result. I have seen some reports from the US suggesting that they are expecting that result to be reviewed as a result of this agreement. The result of the pig meat IRA was more satisfactory to the US. What concerned me was that the result of the pig meat IRA was announced by the US pork council even before it was announced by Biosecurity Australia. Certainly in its submission to the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee, Australian Pork Ltd was deeply concerned that the US pork council and other US farming organisations are giving very different interpretations of what the provisions on quarantine in the US free trade agreement mean, compared with what the Australian government is saying.

The free trade agreement will establish two committees in a series of procedures that are designed to provide a forum for the negotiated resolution of quarantine issues with `a view to facilitating trade'. Of greatest concern is a power for either party to initiate an investigation into the quarantine laws of the other party. Where this occurs, both parties have an obligation to try to reach a mutually agreeable resolution of the issue. Never before could the US force a review of our quarantine laws or decisions without going through the WTO dispute resolution procedures. Clearly, the new procedures could be easily abused for the purpose of removing or softening quarantine restrictions. If this happens, the cost could be enormous both in terms of effects on our primary industries and the impacts on the environment.

The minister has been very unconvincing in arguing that the technical working group—which will include trade representatives, in addition to scientists—will not water down Australia's quarantine standards. If this working group will have no effect on our quarantine system then why is it there? Why is it being proposed? Why do the Americans say that the group will resolve specific bilateral animal and plant health matters, when Mr Vaile says that it is only about communication? If the Americans are now accepting the Australian quarantine system, will they be withdrawing their support for the challenges to our system at the World Trade Organisation in Geneva? In recent years Australia has had some very tough quarantine fights with the US about table grapes, beef, pork meat and so forth. These disputes will only be resolved to the satisfaction of America and facilitate trade if we back down. That essentially is the Democrats' concern. It is not necessarily about what is in this agreement; it is about the consequences of this agreement. It is about the next order of effects—the order of effects that occurs when you put trade negotiators into a process which is supposed to be science based.

I have been involved with the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee investigating the IRAs on apples, pig meat, and bananas over the course of the last year. It is quite clear that, when you talk about a science based assessment, you rapidly come into an area about assumptions and uncertainty. In the case of uncertainty, you are often presented with conflicting scientific advice. That is the whole basis on which our quarantine decisions are made—conflicting, uncertain scientific advice. In those circumstances, you can still say the process is science based but still be making a political decision about what science you choose to use: the science presented by the importing country or the science presented by the Australian primary producers. That is the fundamental issue here. When you put trade negotiators into this facilitating arrangement of an overseeing technical working group, when you put in an appeal process to allow the process to be reviewed where there are problems, then you make it far more likely that the science that will be chosen to be relied on will be the science that benefits the importing country. That is the Democrats' fundamental concern. It is not just a concern that we have; it is a concern shared by many primary producer groups.

Senator McGauran —That is already in place.

Senator CHERRY —That is the problem, Senator McGauran. If we look at the pig meat decision, we see that we caved in to the Americans. The US pork council announced our pig meat IRA decision before Biosecurity Australia did, and that is the fundamental problem. We were relying on their science, not our science. That is the fundamental problem. There were not only concerns that Australian Pork Ltd raised with the inquiry but also deep concerns from the chicken meat industry. In their submission they said:

The statements by the United States that Australia will work to resolve our quarantine barriers on poultry (and the fact that this is being counted as a benefit by the United States) is a very serious concern.

So let us add chicken meat to pig meat as well as table grapes and, potentially, apples and all these other areas where the US will be putting pressure on Biosecurity Australia, through this bilateral arrangement, to choose their science over the producers' science. We can still say it is science based. We can say that until the cows come home. But science is science is science, and science is in the eye of the beholder. Having read through hundreds of pages of scientific analysis of the import risk assessments, I have come to the conclusion that the political pressure that can be brought to bear by these innocuous looking technical working groups will certainly compromise the work of Biosecurity Australia in the long run. Importantly, the US trade negotiators are saying they mean one thing in the US, when Mr Vaile is saying they mean something completely different in this country.

I am very disappointed that the government has allowed our quarantine system to be compromised in this way, and I am also very disappointed that the Labor Party has not included defence of the quarantine system in its list of non-negotiable amendments. It is worth noting a press release from Mr O'Connnor, the Labor Party shadow minister for agriculture, from 20 May. He was commenting on evidence given at additional estimates hearings. He said:

It now seems the agriculture minister was wrong ... At the very least the United States will now be able to input into Australia's Import Risk Assessments from outside the formal process.

The Minister now owes the farmers, the parliament and the Australian people an explanation.

I think Mr O'Connor now owes the Australian people an explanation as to why his party is signing off without making the quarantine system one of its non-negotiable positions. It is deeply disappointing from my point of view and from the point of view of rural Australia.

I turn to the issue of the Australian media industry and its deep concerns about the free trade agreement. The government and the ALP have agreed, at least, to put the current local content standard into legislation. But at the end of the day I agree with the Prime Minister—that that makes very little difference to the impact of this agreement. The fundamental problem of this agreement is that it does not allow the Australian government to regulate to increase local content standards into the future. In terms of new media, emerging media, digital TV and pay TV, it does not allow for anything other than the most minimal change.

Yesterday in question time we heard Senator Kemp, who is still in the chamber, defending the government's wonderful outcomes by saying, `We are allowed to double the amount of Australian content on pay TV, from 10 per cent to 20 per cent.' What if pay TV does start cannibalising free-to-air television? Does that not compromise the capacity of free-to-air television to provide very expensive Australian drama and documentary content? What happens then? The pressure will come from the media companies to bring down the local content quota for pay TV if they are being cannibalised by pay TV. Let us say local content is reduced from 55 per cent to 45 per cent because of commercial and economic pressure. What happens then? I can see it coming—it is absolutely inevitable. That then becomes the new standard.

If there is a change of government, as I said in question time yesterday, to a more pro-Australian government that want to increase the local content level in the future, they will not be allowed to. Once it goes down, it stays down. It cannot go up; it can only go down. The pressure in this agreement to reduce local content standards over the longer term and the economic pressure, by restricting the capacity of the Australian government to regulate new media and pay television, mean that it is inevitable that the TV standard will eventually come down. It is as inevitable as it is unfortunate.

I note the comments of a Melbourne television producer, Mr Tim Ferguson, reported in the Melbourne Age on Monday, on the issue of what will happen with the competition between pay TV and commercial free-to-air television in terms of local content. He noted:

The budget for one episode of Blue Heelers is around $300,000 an hour. One episode of CSI costs about $30,000 to broadcast. There is no way that an Australian producer could make a one-hour local drama for $30,000.

As the standard is reduced over time, as it will be because of the commercial pressures building up between free-to-air and pay TV and new media, then it is inevitable that local content will reduce. Mr Ferguson points out that that is very unfortunate for Australia in a social sense. He says:

... the “monopoly” that Australian content makers enjoy has in no way diminished the quality and relevance of their work. Let's take Aussie soaps for example.

Over the past few months, Home and Away and Neighbours have each raised, believe it or not, pressing social issues. For example, in the past three weeks the issues surrounding the party drug GHB have been confronted head-on by Home and Away. The episodes concerning the dangers of GHB were provocative and informative.

Domestic violence, racial discrimination, drug abuse, homelessness, teenage pregnancy and sexual harassment have all been covered by the two soaps this year.

Do we seriously expect the characters of the US soap The Bold & the Beautiful to discuss anything more important than the issue of gel versus hairspray? Would “Thorn” and “Ridge” engage in a debate about discrimination against Muslims or sexual bullying in high schools? Not while Solid Hold Fudge threatens Schwarzkopf, they won't.

That is the sort of problem we are dealing with as we reduce the amount of local content shown on our television. What we are talking about in the longer term is fewer Australian voices, fewer Australian issues, less Australian culture, less diversity and fewer of our stories being told on our television. That is something which ultimately affects the Australian character. The Broadcasting Services Act, as I said in question time yesterday, has the objective of encouraging the presentation of the Australian cultural identity on television, yet what we have signed off in this free trade agreement is the capacity to defend that permanently into the future. We will see the inevitable commercial pressure of the reduced local content levels on pay television and the inability to properly regulate the levels of new and emerging media cannibalise, ultimately, the local content provision of free-to-air television. Ultimately, inevitably, it will mean loss of jobs in our cultural industries, fewer Australian stories being told and fewer Australian viewpoints being put.

I should also note in passing that the Senate committee heard evidence from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which was concerned about the definition of `public broadcaster'. We have been assured time and again by the government that there is no intention that this agreement will adversely affect the ABC. But the fundamental problem is the way the government negotiators have defined the issue of what is a public broadcaster. I note this because it is very important. Under the US free trade agreement, as I recall the text, a public broadcaster is defined as one which does not compete against commercial broadcasters. Yet the ABC and SBS arguably do compete. SBS, in particular, competes directly for advertising revenue. The ABC competes directly for audience share. At what stage do they ensure that they are carved out of the provisions of the FTA and at what stage do they become subject to the provisions of the FTA?

That is a matter which has not been adequately resolved by the government in its answers to the Senate select committee. It was raised as a concern by the Senate select committee. I do hope that the government, in its response in this debate, gives an absolute, iron-clad, black and white assurance—preferably in black letter law, because I do not trust what ministers say, based on experience—that the ABC and SBS will not be adversely affected in any way, now or in the future, by the US free trade agreement and that the agreement has no application whatsoever in any way to the provision of public broadcasting.

I will conclude with the evidence presented by the Australian film and television industry to the Senate committee. You may recall the assertions of the Minister for Trade, who concluded that the result for film and television was `excellent'. That was how he described his negotiating outcome. He went on to say:

The bottom line is that these commitments give Australia sufficient flexibility to not only maintain the current amounts of local content available to Australian Services in new media services ... but to actually increase these amounts.

This assertion just is not supported. It is certainly not supported by industry, which does not trust this government at all in this key area. In fact, the film industry, in its evidence to the Senate committee, said:

The agreement will severely constrain the ability of this and future Australian governments to determine cultural policy, giving to the government of the United States a much stronger role in the determination of that policy. We will be moving from a position of being solely in charge of our own cultural policy to one where we must consult with the largest cultural producer in the world, and our dominant trade partner, on how we determine our future.

That is the saddest reflection of what we are talking about here: our culture, the presentation of the Australian identity in our media, is now a matter on which we must consult with the United States before proceeding to regulate it in any form. If we want to increase our local content to that 20 per cent level for pay TV that Senator Kemp was so excited about in question time yesterday, or increase it in the new media areas, which have been excised, then we have to consult with the US to ensure that any imposition we put on has minimal impact—`the least burdensome' I think was the term used in the agreement—on US interests.

Why on earth would a government agree to consult a foreign country, particularly the biggest cultural producer in the world, on the presentation of its own culture in its own media? That shows how un-Australian the Howard government has been, how un-Australian the US free trade agreement is and how un-Australian it is to say that the Americans should be determining what is and is not appropriate to present as Australian culture on our television. The government has not just let our cultural industries down; it has let our farming industries down. That is why the Australian Democrats will not be supporting this agreement. Frankly, it is a dud deal and it should be rejected by the Senate.