Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Page: 26032

Senator BROWN (4:56 PM) —`Difficult to see a situation; if it closed the business down it might, but one assumes that, if it closed 80 per cent down, it mightn't'—the whole thing is a set of vagaries. There is nothing specific. All of us on the crossbench object to this free trade agreement and every time we say, `What is the circumstance you're envisaging where there will be a claim for compensation or a legal action against the Australian government?' the minister retreats—or in this case, the minister's deputy retreats—to the position of saying, `It'll be hypothetical; we don't know about it yet.' So we come in here and quote cases under the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is a parallel with this agreement—there are exceptions, but in the main it is a parallel—where there has been action against the Canadian, Mexican or US government—and it is early days yet, but some has been successful and overridden Canadian environmental law—and the government says, `We don't know what will happen in Australia.' I say in return that we know it is going to happen—US corporations overriding Australian laws—and it is going to happen in a court of law beyond the reach of this parliament, under the `joint committee', so-called, or one of its arbitration entities which this parliament does not know about, cannot see, does not appoint, will not get any feedback from, has no input into and has no hold over. What an extraordinary situation. What a derogation of the rights and powers of this parliament and the interests of the Australian people.

Just today, former Liberal Party leader John Hewson has criticised parliamentary debate about the Australian free trade agreement with the US. I am reading from a report which says:

Dr Hewson has told a business breakfast in Perth that he supports the agreement and believes it will be beneficial to Australia.

But he says many Australians are ill-informed about it because there has not been enough debate in Parliament.

“The trouble with a lot of our politicians is they'll fight to get a deal like this done, they'll make it a political issue, they'll get it through the system, put their hand over their heart ... and say `I did a fantastic job',” he said.

“But somebody's going to have to monitor it and manage it over a very long period of time that's probably going to outlive all of them as politicians.”

Then listen to this. The article continues:

Dr Hewson says many Australians may not be aware their country will be giving up a lot of sovereignty by signing the agreement.

“You can go to media ownership, you can go to foreign investment, you can go to intellectual property, a host of areas and I don't think people in Australia have had it explained to them what that can mean,” he said.

Dr Hewson is spot-on. He knows how this place works and does not work, and it is not working today. This chamber is not working, and I will tell you why: it is because the government has not brought the free trade agreement before the chamber. It is a free trade agreement full of weasel words and catch-outs, wide open to the enormous legal power and persuasion of the multinational corporations, closed to the average Australian—as Dr Hewson has pointed out, they do not know what this is about, and those who do have every right to be fearful about it—and outside the reach of this parliament. We are being asked to give up our powers even to oversee the arbitration of all those weasel words and unknowns in this so-called free trade agreement.

Now we come to a very simple matter. There is a clause that says there will be rare circumstances where companies will be able to sue because they believe new environmental laws, health laws or safety laws in Australia have taken away something that was their right, but the government does not care to tell us what those `rare circumstances' are. A parliament cannot function when it is not given detail as important as that and the opposition sits mute. I saw some criticism from Senator Conroy the other day about the Greens having disagreed with this agreement five months ago and now, after all the study, we are still disagreeing with it. The Greens are always open to being informed and seeing the detail come out in a way we did not expect, but the process of this chamber debate has been one of obfuscation by the government. Worse than that, the government side comes from a position of ignorance because it simply cannot explain what the free trade agreement and all these clauses mean.

Do you know why the government cannot explain them? The reason is that they are deliberately not meant to be explainable. This free trade agreement is deliberately concocted so that it is not tied down, it is not defined and it is not clear. It does not say what the impact will be in taking away the rights of Australians, as Dr Hewson pointed out. The free trade agreement takes away the sovereignty of this parliament. It is the sovereignty of this parliament and the rights of the Australian people that are eroded by all the unknowns in the agreement. Does parliament get to sort out what those unknowns are and to make them knowable, defined and quantifiable in a responsible manner? No, because the opposition, the Labor Party, has agreed to this Howard deal with the Bush administration with all its unknowables.

Senator O'Brien —We've had a select committee for five months.

Senator BROWN —Senator O'Brien said there has been a select committee for five months, so Senator O'Brien is now the expert. The minister failed to answer, Madam Temporary Chairman McLucas, so I ask Senator O'Brien for the Labor Party, which is agreeing to this free trade agreement: what are the circumstances in which Australian environmental, social and safety laws can be sued by American corporations for compensation because they intrude on the rights of those corporations? You give us the `rare circumstances', as you are so studied up after five months in committees and so on and as you have signed up to this. What is the Labor Party's explanation for those get-out clauses—rather, those break-in clauses—for the multinational corporations?

What an extraordinary situation we are in, with these two big parties selling out this nation. It is one thing to say you support an agreement but, when you cannot explain that agreement to the sovereign parliament of this nation, you lose the power and the right to hold the position that this is good for Australia. `Good', my foot! You do not even know what it stands for. You are leaving that to an arbitration commission that is outside the laws of this country—outside the courts of this country and beyond the reach of this parliament—to be manufactured under some so-called joint committee, defined in chapter 21, at some time in the future, with people on it appointed by executives outside the reach of this parliament.

Who will have the power and influence over those appointments and the deliberations of the committee and its dozen or more subcommittees set up to look at quarantine, manufacturing, the environment and whatever else? The big corporations, of course, because they reach into executive government in a way they cannot quite reach into the parliaments. It is a rotten process. If it were defined and we could debate it, we could stand in a position where we might lose on that but, when there is nothing to debate because there is nothing definite here—it is all left to be decided outside this parliament—then we have every right to get frustrated and angry about it.

I ask the opposition, if it wants to answer: what is it that you see? What is the defined arbitration process that you see? Who are the people on this joint committee who will arbitrate the interests of this nation? What are their names? How will you appoint them if you get into government? What qualifications will be required? They are not laid down in the treaty, let alone in the legislation before this parliament. What is your safeguard for the people of Australia? What do you have to say to Dr Hewson's claim that sovereignty is being drained out of this parliament by a debate that is not informed?

Hand over heart, the Prime Minister said, `Oh, yes, this is good for Australia.' I have my hand over the heart for a different appreciation of Australia. This agreement devalues forever and a day the right of the democratic system in this country to arbitrate on behalf of, in the interests of and for the good of the Australia I know. As I said earlier, if it gets so bad that you want to get out of this agreement, parliament cannot do anything about it. It is up to the executive—the unelected executive, I might add; they are elected as individuals but, as an executive, they are not elected at all by the people of this country.

Here is the chamber—the one backstop the people have—which should be having a full-on debate here to winkle out every hidden clause and make sure it is understood, but the opposition have gone missing. They have not just gone missing; they have crossed to the other side. There is no debate coming out of the Labor Party here at all. They have to defend the Howard position, and they hope that all the fire will go to the minister opposite. There are a couple of clauses coming up that the Labor Party have had a lot of publicity about, which they hope will convince the Australian people that they have fixed it up. We know differently. We know that that couple of clauses do not match up with the hundreds of fix-ups that were required if this legislation was to stand up to the requirements of the Australian people if they knew about them. But John Hewson says that Australians are ill-informed about this agreement because there has not been enough debate in parliament.

What happened in the House of Representatives? The Labor Party simply threw up their hands or voted for it. Talk about waiting for a Senate committee! And now in this chamber the Labor Party are sitting on their hands, because they have decided that they want this deal done.

The Greens do have amendments. There are some pretty strong amendments coming up which would ensure that the Labor Party, were it to support them and were it to win the election, would have the power to indeed fix up this agreement by re-empowering parliament to be the overseer in the years ahead. These amendments would make sure that these secret, faceless arbitration systems that will determine what is and is not good for Australia in the future have their determinations brought back to the parliament as disallowable instruments—that is, the parliament would have a say over whether they are good or not good for this country.

I will be interested to see whether the Labor Party supports democracy at that level and whether there is faith in these faceless, secret courts set up by this free trade agreement—not part of the Australian courts, not part of the Australian parliament and not part of the Australian people—to arbitrate on this free trade agreement. If there are going to be good results coming out of that and the Labor Party believes in that then it will be supporting the Green amendments to make sure that the deliberation of those courts on the interpretation of this agreement come back into this parliament as regulations or disallowable instruments so that the parliament can say yes or no and so that both houses have a say. That is sensible, that is informative, that is mature politics, that is democracy—and that is the challenge to the Labor Party in the coming hours as we debate this legislation.