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Wednesday, 4 August 2004
Page: 25696

Senator MARSHALL (6:43 PM) —I rise to join tonight's debate on the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004 in response to some of the twaddle I have heard from government senators about this matter. They are the same government senators who, before the free trade agreement text was even available or tabled in this parliament, time after time got up in this place to tell us what great benefits the agreement was going to bring to this country. They did not have a clue what was in it and they had not even gone through a process of analysis, yet with such confidence they were able to predict fantastic benefits that were going to arise from it.

Labor always took the position that we would pass the free trade agreement on its merits, and we set some benchmarks for that process. We engaged actively in the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties process, which was fairly exhaustive. Unfortunately, some previously declared bias, particularly of the chair of the committee—who had already declared that he supported the free trade agreement and would use his position as chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties to promote the benefits of the free trade agreement, which at that time he had not even seen, to the Australian public—brought into disrepute many of the findings of that committee.

Because of that biased process, Labor embarked on a Senate select committee process which was to be a thorough one to get from the public all the concerns that needed to be addressed and to carefully analyse the free trade agreement in a considered way. That is the process that was undertaken; yet we hear the government say that it was a process of delay that resulted in a political stunt. It is quite amazing to me to hear government senators saying, time after time, that what we are doing in protecting the PBS is simply a political stunt and going on to say that we are just trying to appease the left wing of the party, trying to win votes and trying to wedge people. They go on with all this politics, attacking the opposition. The only people playing politics here are the government.

The question that really has to be asked—and this is what the government have failed to address at all—is: why is public policy about medicines, and the affordability of medicines, in a trade agreement? Why is public policy in a trade agreement? We know that the Americans believe that Australians do not pay a high enough price for pharmaceuticals. They insist that it be in a trade agreement. I ask: to what end? If we believe the government when they say that they have absolutely protected the PBS, why did they allow it to be in the free trade agreement anyway? If it was going to make no change, why is it there? It must be absolutely unnecessary.

We know why it is there. It is there because it opens up our PBS, and the affordable price of pharmaceuticals to ordinary Australians, to multinational pharmaceutical companies based in the US who make massive profits and spend billions of dollars on litigation every year. It opens up our country and our PBS to those sorts of pressures. That is why it is there, and that is something that the Labor Party will not accept. We said from the outset that we would not allow this free trade agreement to undermine the PBS, and that is why we will be steadfast in our opposition to these bills without the amendment that is proposed by the Labor Party. We will not support the bills without the amendment proposed by the Labor Party, because it is only that amendment that protects the PBS from being undermined—and the government know it.

If there is any politics being played on this at all, it is that the government know that to accept our amendment would be an admission that they have misled the Australian people throughout this period of time. Who says that? Government members say it themselves. Let us go to recommendation No. 5 of the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, which every government member signed on to. It says:

In establishing the independent review of PBAC processes (for PBS listing under Annex 2-C of the Agreement), the Committee recommends that, in order to ensure that the fundamental integrity of the PBS is retained, the following principles be taken into account ...

Then it recommends a number of steps that need to be put in place. So even the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, which every government member signed on to, recognised that we need to ensure that the fundamental integrity of the PBS be retained. Why would they make such a recommendation if they felt that the integrity of the PBS was already retained? It makes no sense. Of course they accepted that the PBS was going to be undermined by this agreement. If they were released from their party shackles, they would accept the amendment that the Labor Party is going to move to protect the PBS in this process.

Earlier in the debate I heard Senator Watson say that our amendment is unnecessary. If he really believes that it is unnecessary, what is the problem? If it is unnecessary, why not pass it? He went on to tell us that all it does is mirror what is there now in patent law. But then the government went on to tell us that it is unworkable. If the amendment mirrors what is there now, how can it be unworkable unless what is there now is also unworkable? I have not heard anyone argue that. If it mirrors what is there now and if it is unnecessary, what is the government's problem? What is the problem with passing the amendment?

We know what the problem is: it is that you want to play politics with it. You know the agreement needs strengthening in this area but you cannot bring yourselves to admit it because you have been saying to the Australian public all the way through this debate that you have protected the PBS. But your own government members on the joint standing committee recognised that you have not. You know that you have not, but you cannot bring yourself to protect the PBS because you cannot admit that you were wrong and that you have misled the Australian people all through this process. That is a disgrace. The government ought to stop playing politics, do the right thing and support the amendments proposed by the Labor Party.

Debate interrupted.