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Monday, 9 August 2004
Page: 25864

Senator HUTCHINS (1:26 PM) —It is always a pleasure to follow Senator Hogg; in his many years as a member of the Senate and in his many years of active involvement in either the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade or the Senate's Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee, he has always been involved in a number of areas in which our relationship in trade, in particular, has been fleshed out and exposed. I was not going to speak in relation to the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004. However, when I was listening to some of the characters on the other side speak—

Senator HUTCHINS —Yes, Senator George Brandis comes to mind. I thought it was only right that I come down and give my two bob's worth. In particular, I would like to thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President Marshall, because I had an opportunity to read your contribution to this debate and the work which you did in quoting some of the US congressmen in relation to this trade deal to which I will refer shortly.

I came down on the 12.35 Qantas plane yesterday, a Dash 8 from Sydney. The Leader of the Opposition was on that plane—as was one of the senior staffers, Simon Banks—and he was sitting up the front. As you would know, when travelling on those small aircraft, when you are in the emergency area you are issued with documents asking you whether there is some assistance you might be able to give. Admittedly, one-third of the plane was full of Japanese tourists, but two-thirds of the plane was not. When the young stewardess went over to Mr Latham and said, `In the case of an emergency would you be prepared to assist?' the whole plane broke out in good-natured laughter and they all said, `Please, Mark, help us get rid of this government.' I joke not, because I was there, I saw it and it was quite humorous. But I think you would have to say that at the moment we are probably in the throes of trying to assist in getting rid of this government.

When we left here at the end of June, I was sure that we would not be coming back. I thought that for most of the year—and I think my colleagues might agree with me—the coalition had not been kicking too many goals but that maybe in that last week or so we had had some difficulties and it might have been that the Prime Minister had that five weeks in which he could go around the electorate opening bridges, going to football games and doing whatever else we politicians might do in that break, and that he might want to think about calling an election before we came back. If you recall, the coalition's primary vote did increase and in fact ours was level pegging with theirs.

The opportunity was there for the coalition to call the election that is now being mooted. But, no, they did not. Prime Minister Howard came back this week thinking Labor were at sixes and sevens on the free trade agreement, that he would have the opportunity to exploit what was seen as division within the Labor Party and that he would ram home what he believed was our inability to lead this country. What a difference 24 hours makes. Within 24 hours that grin was wiped off the Prime Minister's face. Once again the Prime Minister is faced with a situation—like the one he faced in the week of the opening of parliament this year—where he has to accept Labor's initiatives, which he will inevitably do, on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. I will go on to that in a second.

The Prime Minister was already prepared to accept our amendments on local content. What a marvellous backflip that was from the Prime Minister. Within 12 hours he agreed to do that one on the local content, and almost for a week he has been strung out and wandering out there wondering what to do next in relation to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. That is exactly where we are at the moment. What a difference 24 hours makes. You thought you were coming back to this parliament to exploit the divisions within this party. You thought that would lead you to be, towards the end of this week or maybe the end of next week, in a perfect position to call an election because you would be on a high. Haven't you been given the raw end of the pineapple? You have found yourselves in a situation where it has all backfired on you.

Politics is sometimes a matter of luck, but all this year this coalition have had no luck at all. Every which way the chessboard has been played we have been able to outmanoeuvre them—on each and every occasion. They let go the opportunity they had to use a perceived division within the Labor Party. Where is it now? They are on the back foot. They are the ones that have lost the initiative. They are the ones that are yet again having to come up with suggestions from the Labor Party for how to get themselves out of this impasse. Once again they have demonstrated that they are not capable to continue in power. After not using that opportunity they had, you would think those coalition MPs in marginal seats would be gnashing their teeth. I like to always think of the expression, `If you cannot look after yourself, how can you look after anybody else?' That is exactly where the coalition have got themselves at this stage. They cannot look after themselves. They are out there meandering about wondering where they will go next.

There were two elements to the free trade agreement that we found objectionable. The Labor senators on the Senate Select Committee on the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the United States of America made this recommendation on local content:

... that Australia's local content requirements for free-to-air television, subscription television and radio be enshrined in legislation, so that reductions in these quotas require reference to the Parliament.

There was concern that the ratchet nature of Australia's local content regulations would endanger local content on television and radio in the future. Labor's proposed amendment to ensure local content in legislation is an entirely sensible measure to ensure that local content requirements can only be changed by the parliament of Australia. Currently the Australian content standard for commercial television, known as the Broadcasting Services (Australian Content) Standard 1999, regulates the amount of local content on free-to-air television. This is reviewed regularly. While it is informed by legislation, the local content quotas themselves are not enshrined in legislation.

The Prime Minister quickly agreed to this amendment. Despite all his protesting and his demands that the Australian people and the parliament simply trust his opinion on the benefits of the free trade agreement, he speedily acquiesced to Labor's recommendations regarding local content. That demonstrates that the Senate's committee process was useful. Why did he do it so quickly? I think we know. He did not want all those actors walking around the marginal seats raising concerns about local content. That is why he speedily agreed to it. He did not want actors like Toni Collette or Geoffrey Rush going out doorknocking in some of the marginal seats across this country. So of course he made an opportunistic decision, thinking that would be smart enough to put us in a bind. Hasn't that backfired on the coalition?

The significant difference between ourselves and the coalition on the free trade agreement—and the one that will matter most to Australians' hip pockets—is on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. While it is good for Australia that the Prime Minister has agreed to Labor's position on local content rules, the one remaining hurdle is our proposed change to patent rules applying to pharmaceuticals. As we know, the big issue in this is evergreening. Just to remind people, evergreening is a process by which patent-holding pharmaceutical companies lodge new patents to prevent the production of generic forms of drugs. In cases where the patent for a drug is due to expire, pharmaceutical companies will lodge a fresh application, sometimes on dubious grounds, in an attempt to perpetuate—or, as they call it, evergreen—their sole right to produce and sell the medicine concerned.

There are a multitude of dubious patent applications which have been lodged in the United States, which demonstrates that this is a problem which could have a lasting effect on the accessibility of cheap, effective generic drugs in Australia. Often in the United States a fresh application for a patent will be lodged to change the use to being primarily for children rather than for adults, as the first patent stated. The new patent could be for the physical appearance of the pill or capsule itself rather than the chemical composition of the medicine. These sorts of spurious or dodgy applications have the potential to undermine Australia's access to cheap, effective drugs, because they slow the listing of generics on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

People need to take in the weight of what I said about what these pharmaceutical companies are up to. This is not something that could happen or something that happens only in the United States; this happens in the United States and in many other countries around the world. These huge and profitable pharmaceutical companies make sure that people have less access to cheap generic drugs. In this process of evergreening you can imagine people in the law firms in New York, Boston and London, quaffing back their Moet Chandon on a Friday afternoon wondering how they can make sure that they protect their clients, the big pharmaceutical companies. It can be as trivial as the size of a `new' product, its colour or, as I said, whether it is square, oblong or round. They may have put a band through the centre of it or two bands through the centre of it. This agreement would prevent—and we will look at Labor's amendment—Australians having access to these generic forms of drugs.

These are not just concerns that are rightly raised by Australian legislators. As I said at the commencement of my contribution, Senator Marshall no doubt had his staff look at some of the contributions made in the US Congress. I want to quote the three congressmen that Senator Marshall quoted in his contribution to this debate. Firstly, there was Mr Tom Allen, a US congressman. He said:

... I question whether it is appropriate to use trade policy to interfere in other nations' health systems. We certainly wouldn't accept such a demand from other countries.

That was said in the US Congress by a US congressman, querying why they were doing something to one of their allies. Let me quote Mr Henry Waxman, yet another congressman. He said:

Domestic healthcare policy should not be decided in trade agreements.

I agree with that. He continued:

It is wrong for us to interfere with another country's domestic health policy, particularly when it comes to the affordability of medicine which is an equally sensitive issue here in the United States. This is special interest policy making at its worst. The Bush Administration is letting the pharmaceutical industry use trade agreements to manipulate the drug laws of the United States and other countries in ways that the industry could not otherwise achieve.

This is nirvana for these greedy pharmaceutical companies—a nirvana that is being legislated by the United States government and acquiesced in by their sycophants here in Australia. Let me read what Mr Mark Udall, yet another US congressman, said in relation to the free trade agreement and its impact on the pharmaceutical industry:

I am concerned about the potential precedent of the Administration meddling excessively in the internal affairs of a trading partner. With regard to this treaty, the USTR initially sought substantial changes in Australia's drug-pricing program. Though the USTR was not completely successful, the agreement does give U.S. drug companies more say in what drugs are included under Australia's universal drug coverage program. While market access for U.S. goods is important, we shouldn't be in the business of bullying the world and potentially undermining a country's ability to provide prescription drugs to its citizens.

Nowhere in the debate so far have I heard any reassurances from the government spokespeople that if we were to pass this legislation without the foreshadowed Labor amendments we would not be suffering in the long term from being denied access to generic drugs and damaging our current pharmaceutical benefits system.

Recommendations 19 through to 25 by the Labor senators dealt with their concerns in relation to the pharmaceutical benefits aspect of this legislation. In fact, Labor's amendment will be coming out shortly. It will not be just the tap on the hand approach that has been put forward by the coalition to deal with people who would try to prevent access to generic drugs. Our amendment will be strong, as our shadow minister, Ms Gillard, has said, and it will have in it punitive actions for people who do this.

Finally, I want to make a comment in relation to tainted blood and the free trade agreement. Labor senators recommended that, consistent with the terms of the free trade agreement, the Commonwealth ensure that the following occur whenever possible: all blood products to be used in the Australian medical system must be sourced from Australian blood plasma; Australian blood plasma must continue to be collected by voluntary donation; if plasma fractionation is to occur outside Australia then Australian plasma should be processed on separate production lines; and if plasma fractionation occurs outside Australia then overseas suppliers must satisfy at least the same level of medical standards that apply to Australian suppliers. The Senate has just conducted an inquiry into what we call `tainted blood', hepatitis C and people who acquired hepatitis C via blood transfusions. The level of infection in this country is nowhere like the level of infection in the United States because of the fact that we still have a voluntary system in this country rather than the system in the United States, where people are paid for the blood they donate for use in transfusions.

I started off my contribution by giving you an anecdote about the Leader of the Opposition and about the view of people who wish to make sure that our country is left in safe hands. I know that when the amendments come before the Senate and the House of Representatives the government will probably have to accept them in the end, because, as you would be well aware, Mr Deputy President, we are saying to them that this is the way to get this bill passed. The government are also being told this by their business masters. In fact, the Business Council of Australia has told them to pass them, the Australian Industry Group has told them to pass them and the Australian Medical Association has told them to pass them. The Australian Medical Association commented that Labor's enabling legislation would make generic drugs more freely available or at least make sure that there were no flaws or snags along the way. That is exactly what the Australian Medical Association said in relation to Labor's proposed amendments. In conclusion, you might have thought the coalition were walking into a great week last week. Didn't it turn sour very quickly? It will continue to turn sour on them, because they have lost the touch.