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Wednesday, 4 August 2004
Page: 25602


Senator LUNDY (12:37 PM) —Throughout the debate on the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004 I have been focusing primarily on two issues: culture, and intellectual property as it relates to the IT sector. I am very pleased to say that, as part of the Labor Party's announcement to support the free trade agreement with the two amendments that we are insisting upon, we also announced a series of policy initiatives that we believe will mitigate some of the worst effects of the free trade agreement in the areas of both intellectual property and culture.

Turning to the question of local content, the government's forced acquiescence to one of Labor's amendments relating to protecting local content quotas via legislation and permitting the parliament to have a say in any changes to those local content quotas means that the Howard government was absolutely vulnerable on this issue. Throughout this debate, Senator Kemp, on behalf of the Howard government, has stood up in this chamber and given bland and shallow assurances. If that were the case, they would not be supporting the amendment. They know that the local content quotas are vulnerable to being ratcheted down by the Australian Broadcasting Authority in the absence of any check and balance in the parliament.

The Howard government's announcement yesterday that they are prepared to accept Labor's amendment to the Australia-United States free trade agreement demonstrates just how vulnerable they were on retaining their ability to protect Australia's local content on free-to-air television, pay television and radio. Labor is committed to ensuring that Australians continue to see and hear Australian faces and voices through their popular media. Labor will insist on the amendment to the enabling legislation in the Senate to ensure that the free trade agreement does not undermine our existing local content rules.

It is particularly pertinent to be discussing this issue in this place today because figures released today indicate that Australia's film and television industry is in crisis. They show a dramatic decline in the number of local feature productions, which have dropped from an average of 28 per year in the second half of the 1990s to just 15 in 2003-04. Investment in Australian features from the local film and TV industry and private sources has been falling for the past three years—from $45.5 million in 2001-02 to just $17.2 million this year.

Without the production of just one high budget feature this year, Happy Feet,the total production value of Australian features would have been similar to the 2002-03 eight-year low of $49 million. Also disturbing is the decrease in TV drama production spending. It is down to its lowest level in 10 years with local TV drama hours having fallen from an average of 718 per year in the late 1990s to 574 hours in 2003-04. These figures are vindication of why Labor has insisted on an amendment to the FTA enabling legislation to enshrine the local content quotas to ensure that they cannot be ratcheted down under the agreement with the United States. Some time before the next election Labor will also be announcing a policy package to encourage further investment in Australia's film and television industry.

I think it is important for the Senate to remember the crucial role that these local content quotas have played in keeping Australian stories before Australian people. The fact is that the economics of production these days determine that it is cheaper for networks to just buy overseas content. So, without these laws being firm and clear, we would not have as much Australian content on our TV screens or in our theatres.

For many people contemplating this free trade agreement, it is ironic that Australia has the most open market. It is not as though Australia blocks content from anywhere else. We have the most open market and, to that degree, it is not surprising that only 27 per cent of new content on Australian television is actually made here. Whereas in the UK and the US respectively, new TV content is in the 90 percentile area. That is a big difference and that tells us why we have to keep fighting to maintain those content quotas. We want to hear Australian stories; we want to reflect upon ourselves through our art and through our creativity. That is why Labor is putting such a high focus on these issues.

The other area I would like to address in my comments is that of intellectual property. A great deal of concern has been expressed through the Senate inquiry and in the public domain about the impact on the information technology sector in Australia and, more broadly in relation to chapter 17 of the free trade agreement, intellectual property. I refer to the Senate select committee report's reference to intellectual property because it expresses some very disturbing facts about the way in which the whole issue of intellectual property was handled. At paragraph 3.124 of the Senate select committee's summary report it states:

The Committee is also concerned about the general ability of DFAT, DoCITA and AttorneyGeneral's department officials to answer questions on the IP issues at the Committee's public hearings. The officials had to take on notice many questions that the Committee believes they should have been able to answer on the day, and took significant amounts of time to provide answers. When answers were eventually provided, they frequently lacked sufficient detail, were dismissive and opaque, and often did not appropriately correspond to the questions asked.

It continues:

3.125 With IP law emerging as an important area of public policy, as well as being a key aspect of the AUSFTA, the Committee considers that greater technical expertise should have been demonstrated. Whether the difficulties answering questions result from lack of departmental cooperation and coordination or from insufficient expertise within relevant departments, the Committee is of the view that the Commonwealth Government must upgrade its IP expertise and ensure that any future changes to IP laws are based on a whole-of-government approach. The Committee considers that the performance of the relevant departments at hearings throughout the inquiry invites speculation that proper technical expertise may not have been brought to bear in the negotiation of the IP Chapter.

Those are serious words indeed, but the buck stops with the Howard government on this. The Howard government did not treat the intellectual property provisions of this agreement with the due respect they deserve. They will have a significant impact on Australia's future economic and innovation prospects and will impact directly on our ability to ensure that we have appropriate protections against anticompetitive behaviour in Australia. It is worth looking at the big picture of the inclusion of intellectual property in a bilateral trade agreement of this type. It is unusual—the committee reflected upon that—to see such a strong emphasis. I have no doubt that it was at the insistence of the US.

The IP provisions are obviously the focus of Labor's concern in relation to the patent system for pharmaceuticals and to the potential for shonky patents and patent applications preventing generic drugs from entering Australia—hence, our amendment relating to protecting Australia's PBS that we will insist upon. Specific concerns which I would like to address include software patents, copyright of digital products, the treatment of circumvention devices and the impact generally on Australia's open source environment.

Debate interrupted.