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Thursday, 5 August 2004
Page: 25751

Senator RIDGEWAY (12:33 PM) —I acknowledge that I have already contributed to the second reading debate but I want to make some comments in respect of a second reading amendment circulated by Senator Nettle on behalf of the Australian Greens. I understand the rules allow for those senators who have spoken before circulation of such amendments to make further comments. In that context I want to say on behalf of the Australian Democrats that we will support the Australian Greens second reading amendment but note that, unfortunately, this is not going to make the free trade agreement any better. In many respects I think the damage has already been done and no amount of further study is really going to change our minds. We have seen enough to know that, on balance, it is going to do real harm to our national interest and therefore cannot be supported.

For the record, I note that the Democrats sought to compel the government to do exactly this type of review way back in March this year. You might recall that we successfully moved a motion in the Senate noting that under US trade law, before any agreement can be ratified, a thorough environmental impact assessment must be done to review the extent to which positive and negative environmental impacts may flow from economic changes estimated to result from any prospective agreement. On that occasion our motion called on the government to conduct a full public analysis of the environmental, social and cultural impact of the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the United States of America and, in line with the way the government was conducting their assessment of whether or not it would be in Australia's interest to require the consultants that had been engaged—I think the Centre for International Economics or others as the case may have been—not only to conduct a proper analysis of the other issues that needed to be considered but to table the reports of those reviews in parliament for its consideration. The Senate did agree to that motion. Unfortunately, the government would not listen.

We already know that the agreement is not in Australia's interest and will have a disastrous effect on social, cultural and environmental outcomes—most of all because that analysis has not been done. Quite frankly, whilst our laws are somewhat relaxed or even deficient in addressing these issues, I think that any trade agreement with any nation in the context of any national interest assessment should look beyond the economic bottom line to also include social, cultural and environmental outcomes.

Those issues are particularly important given that, through this sort of arrangement, we open ourselves to a range of pressures and influences from the United States. For example, whilst the government gives some assurances, it may be under pressure to change some of our laws in the future. I do not believe that the Australian Democrats would want that to happen. Certainly, I do not believe anyone in this place would want to go down that path. We will be supporting the second reading amendment although, as I said, it has little effect other than to make the point that the analysis of the free trade agreement is deficient. Obviously, there should have been public input into the environmental impact assessment and it should have been one which looked at what the real and likely outcomes were going to be.

At the time the motion was brought on I recall also having asked a direct question of the Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Hill, on this particular matter. The response from government was that these were things that were going to be difficult to quantify in any form whatsoever. It seems to me that if the Americans can do it, and it is a requirement of the national interest assessment process there, then there is no reason why we ought to use the excuse that it cannot be done. It simply must be done. I would hope that, if nothing else, this agreement will provide an opportunity for us to fix our laws not just on the question, as Senator Harradine has rightly said, of the role of parliament in ratifying treaties but, more particularly, on trade agreements. It is one matter where I think the Democrats have been hard on the trail for quite some time. Obviously, we see it in a much broader way. The US Congress follows that path. The Congress decides, as a result of the instructions that are given by the US President on any trade agreements with any country, and so it should in this case as well.

The Australian Democrats will be supporting the Australian Greens second reading amendment. Again, we do not see the reason for it because the agreement itself is fatally flawed and it will have a negative impact, I think, in the short, medium and long term.