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Wednesday, 4 August 2004
Page: 25597

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (12:16 PM) —The Democrat senators have addressed the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004 in a range of different ways and from a range of perspectives because not only is it a large piece of legislation but it is an even larger agreement that this legislation in part implements. Of course, there are many other parts of the agreement that the Senate cannot even touch—they have been signed, sealed and delivered without the opportunity for the Senate to modify them in any way. This legislation simply addresses some components that are in the agreement that require changes to the law.

The reason we have had such an extensive debate on this legislation is that it is such a significant issue, so the Democrats have put in the time and have done the work to examine the agreement in detail, not only through the Senate select committee and Senator Ridgeway's work there but also through the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, of which I am a member. After examining all the evidence our view as a party is that it is quite clear that this agreement is not in Australia's interests. It is not a good long-term or even medium-term agreement. There are significant problems contained within it. It is not 100 per cent bad; there are components that would be beneficial but there are clearly major flaws and problems.

In an overarching sense the agreement is dishonest, as is much of the political debate surrounding it. One of the important roles of the Senate is to try to expose the truth and to fight to ensure that we get an honest political debate at least. Even the title of the agreement—calling it a `free trade' agreement—is dishonest because, as a number of economic commentators have pointed out, it is not a free trade agreement. In many respects it further restricts trade or locks in existing restrictions in significant ways.

The negotiation and the debate surrounding the Australia-US free trade agreement, and this legislative component of it, expose the lies and hypocrisy of both the larger parties—how both Labor and Liberal are prepared to go on simply looking for political advantage and playing politics while selling out the Australian people. The agreement has been driven by politics and it is a political football that is all about the contest between the larger parties and between Mr Howard and Mr Latham. And we have seen that continue this week.

The tragedy alongside that is that, with the focus on the political opportunities and dangers for the two larger parties in the pre-election environment, the policy component—the aspects that are going to help or hinder the Australian community—have been left to one side. That is why we have had such dishonesty all the way through, stretching right back and up until now. Towards the end of last year, the Prime Minister said:

... if we can't get something quite big on agriculture then we won't have a free trade agreement, we won't.

There are lots of things you could say about this agreement, but it certainly does not get `something quite big on agriculture'. And of course it was that area that was mentioned right from the start as being the one that needed reform—if they were really genuine about opening up trade opportunities. This year Mr Vaile, the Minister for Trade, said:

... sugar must be part of the deal and we're not conceding that.

Senator Ian Campbell said in this place:

... the PBS is not on the table.

Then there was the overarching deceit—claiming that the deal is overwhelmingly in Australia's interests. All you have to do is listen to the joyful crowing of the US commentators about the coup they believe they have scored with this deal—almost completely free access to everything, while compromising very little in the process. They use terms such as `unprecedented access' and `slam dunk' to describe the outcome from their perspective.

For instance, let me repeat some comments made by US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, reported at the time the deal was concluded, which speak volumes about exactly what sort of deal we have here. Mr Zoellick spoke proudly about what a great deal this was for the US and how they had resisted Australia's pleas for even just a little more access in many areas. He stated:

And we have an 18-year phase-out that Prime Minister Howard personally was pushing to get lowered, which we didn't lower.

It actually should work well with our industry ...

An article in the Australian at the time also reported the following comments:

On dairy products, Mr Zoellick sounded especially pleased, using irony to call the Australian increase `huge' and trumpeting the fact that Canberra had been unable to end the tariff protection for US dairy farmers. `And, frankly, in terms of dairy, I think we've increased our quota—didn't touch the tariffs one bit—the huge amount of about maybe $30 or $40 million a year.'

These remarks are not only extraordinarily boastful; they are more than embarrassing. The fact that our Prime Minister made a personal appeal in this key area and was rejected categorically, 100 per cent, and the Americans feel they can boast about it, is particularly humiliating.

How good is the agreement? It is not just about how it is perceived and how people boast about it; it is about the actions as well as the words. It is about the facts, instead of just the spin. Ross Gittins, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, argues that a free trade agreement is not in the national interests of the United States, that they would not agree to one and that that is why we do not have a free trade agreement. He says:

... a real FTA with Australia is the last thing the US wants. And the last thing the US wants for ... IP goods and services is free trade. The fact is, the US wants monopoly pricing for these goods and services, not competitive prices.

That is what this agreement delivers the US. Monopoly pricing is anticompetitive; it is certainly not freeing up trade. In the Sydney Morning Herald on 31 July 2004 Alan Ramsey urged us to consider reality rather than make-believe. He said:

The so-called FTA is not a trade agreement, free or otherwise. It is a political deal with George Bush. What the United States Congress, at Bush's bidding, has given the Howard Government, in gratitude for embracing the lies and manipulation that took both countries into Iraq, is a signed piece of paper, no more and no less. Its immense value is that it enables Howard to spin an electoral illusion to seduce voters, as well as use as a cudgel should Labor challenge it. It is, Howard prays, the key piece in his election strategy to stay Prime Minister.

We are seeing that playing out in front of our eyes now this very week. Even with the tiniest fig leaf that the Labor Party are using to try to focus on a small part of the problems with the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, already the government is coming out—it is typical; the same people are coming out—saying that the Labor Party are anti-American and they do not support the FTA because intrinsically they are anti-American. We all know that that is ridiculous, but that is the lie the government continues to push and it is willing to enter into an agreement that is not in Australia's interests, which actually locks us out of freeing up trade, purely because of the political opportunity it provides to use `a cudgel'—to use Mr Ramsey's words—against the Labor Party, should they challenge it. I am very disappointed that in most respects Labor have decided to support this agreement, despite all the arguments against it, because they are concerned about being hit with that cudgel.

Kenneth Davidson in the Age wrote about how the overwhelming vote in the US Congress for the free trade agreement was a reflection of the fact that it was a vote for protection and an extension of US interests, not opening up freer trade. He said that the arguments in favour of the agreement advanced by the Australian government are as dodgy as the so-called intelligence the public was fed to justify the Iraq invasion. Tim Colebatch spoke about the Prime Minister's desperation for a deal, leading him to accept an agreement that would mean freer trade in one direction—from the US into Australia—but restricted trade the other way. He said it will not mean free trade for many Australian exports to the US—not ever.

A key area of concern—although certainly not the only one, but one which many Australians can immediately identify with and understand—is pharmaceutical benefits, because of the real prospect that the agreement will lead to more expensive medicines, drugs and medical services for Australians. Of course, we were going to get that anyway from the beginning of next year with the ALP's extraordinary decision, after two years of opposing it, to suddenly support the government in enabling the price of medicines to increase quite substantially for many people. This agreement opens up the prospect of even further increases. As the report of the Senate Select Committee on the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the United States of America suggests, the PBS is integral to Australia's health care system. It is core social policy and should never have been included in any debate or negotiations on trade. It should never have been on the table, as government ministers said would be the case, but they lied to us. Trade Minister Vaile told parliament on many occasions last year that the US negotiators were `in no way going after the PBS'.

Senator Ian Campbell told the Senate at the end of last year that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Trade both made it very clear that `the PBS is not on the table'. Yet the chief negotiator, Mr Stephen Deady, told the Senate committee that, `discussions' on the PBS commenced in the first round of negotiations back in March 2003. For all that time, even though it is clear that the PBS was on the table right from the start, we had government ministers saying, `It's not on the table. It's not a problem. Don't worry about it.' Of course, it is not only on the table but it is a central part of negotiations. Once it became clear that the PBS was indeed on the table, the government downplayed its importance, but we should look at the enthusiasm shown by the US negotiator, Mr Zoellick, who said in his response to questions from the US Congress that it was a `breakthrough' for US pharmaceutical interests.

Looking again at the broader agreement, the Senate select committee interim report on the US free trade agreement is openly concerned about the legitimacy of governments entering into an agreement of this nature. The report, signed off by both Labor and Liberal senators, even went so far as to say:

... governments seldom, if ever, could be said to have a mandate to enter into trade agreements given that such agreements are rarely referred to or given coverage prior to elections ...

... Problems will always arise when citizens feel that the government is not apprising them adequately of the matters being placed on the negotiating table, or when they sense that a veil of secrecy is being drawn over agreements that may have far-reaching consequences for their economic, social, environmental or cultural futures.

... ... ...

... The collective commitment of Australian governments to advance the wellbeing of all Australians relies to a considerable degree on trust and confidence.

I want to repeat that sentence, because it is critical not only to this free trade agreement but to a key issue that must be acknowledged at the upcoming election. The free trade agreement will undoubtedly feature in statements from all sides of the debate during the election campaign. What has happened here—and I go back to the point I made at the start about the political opportunities and dangers—is that the political positioning of the larger parties has overridden public interest and a factual debate. That is very apparent. This occurs repeatedly and damages not only the result, in terms of what is best for the Australian community and our long-term interests, but also the overall credibility of our parliamentary system and our democracy. I think that, because Australia has been one of the miniscule number of countries to have had the incredible good fortune to have continuous democracy for over 100 years—and we have never had a significant war in our country—sometimes we do not realise how precious, and also how fragile, democracy is. We can never tell what the future will hold, but we certainly do not want to allow its integrity to deteriorate any more than is absolutely necessary. So that sentence I quoted earlier is critical to this issue and to the broader situation that we have to keep in mind in all political debate and in the exercise of democracy as we go through the lead-up to and as part of the election. The sentence says:

... The collective commitment of Australian governments to advance the wellbeing of all Australians relies to a considerable degree on trust and confidence.

Whatever else you could say, positive or negative, about this government, I do not think there is any doubt that it has overseen a continued and significant decline in public trust and confidence in the credibility and honesty of its statements.

What is most confounding is that—despite all the concerns and caveats with the agreement; despite the inability of the Senate committee to assess whether it really was in Australia's best interests to sign this agreement, including in the area of pharmaceutical benefits; despite the poor process used in developing this treaty and others like it; and despite the clear indication that there is little public trust and little confidence in the abilities of the negotiators, let alone the agenda of the government—the committee have still recommended that the Senate pass the legislation anyway.

Parliamentary approval of treaties has been an important part of Democrat policy for some time. Former New South Wales senator Vicki Bourne introduced the Parliamentary Approval of Treaties Bill in 1995, and we continue to pursue that. Throughout this year, we have emphasised the importance of this issue, and have continually called for agreements such as this US free trade agreement to be brought before the parliament for scrutiny and debate prior to its being signed off and basically presented to us as a fait accompli. The Democrats will continue to support the need for parliamentary approval of all international agreements. Having said this, the recommendations of the Senate select committee report on the US free trade agreement—and, indeed, even some of the content of the government controlled Joint Standing Committee on Treaties—in relation to the parliamentary approval of trade agreements proposes a useful process to ensure that there is greater democratic legitimacy in seeking to bind Australia to major trade agreements.

The process set out in the report would ensure that the elected representatives of the people of Australia have an opportunity to have a voice in the process of entering into binding international commitments. The parliament would have a role in approving the government's priorities for trade negotiations, which would give the government a greater democratic mandate in those negotiations. A concluded trade agreement that conformed to already agreed objectives would be far more likely to receive final parliamentary approval and be far more likely to meet the agreed cross-party mandated support for the policy objective. It would also be far less likely to be shaped by political opportunism rather than public interest.

This process is similar to the one that operates in the United States, where the congress has an opportunity to accept or reject any major agreement entered into by the executive government. It is time that Australia embraced a similar arrangement. The current system—where commitments are made by our executive without consultation, commitments which have a significant impact on every facet of Australia's economic, social and environment structure and bind us long into the future—is inappropriate and lacks democratic legitimacy.

Even though we are all aware that a federal election is bearing down upon us, let us not forget that we must consider the longer term aspects. One of the many other perceptions surrounding the debate about this agreement is the repeated deceit that this is a once in a lifetime or a once in a generation opportunity. I do not believe that at all. I think it would be totally feasible for us as a nation, particularly if there were a change of government, to go back after the election and say: `There are significant components of this that need renegotiating. Having stepped back and examined it, let's re-engage and fix it up. Let's do it properly.' There is no way that that is not a feasible prospect. To say: `This is the only chance we are going to get. We have to grab it now or it will be gone forever,' is just another lie. It is just like calling it a free trade agreement when it is not a free trade agreement—it is just another lie. We have to look at what the public will think about this agreement 10, 20 or 100 years down the track. The Democrats have always been about looking at the long term—looking years ahead, not just at what is in the short-term political cycle. Will people 50 or 100 years down the track look back and think of this as a positive or as a negative? That is the way we should be looking at it—even just in terms of a generation, 25 or 30 years ahead—not just whether it will help us get some extra votes in the next couple of months. I reinforce the point that the Democrats will not be supporting this legislation. (Time expired)