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Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Page: 26038

Senator RIDGEWAY (5:28 PM) —I also want to contribute to this debate on behalf of the Australian Democrats and, in particular, refer to the Greens amendment about essentially the protection of public health, safety and the environment. I think it is a very crucial amendment most of all because it seeks to make the free trade agreement subordinate to public welfare objectives. That is a most important point to make, given that there has been very little debate—even here in parliament and out in the community—about a proper understanding of the impact of the free trade agreement, certainly in the context of the two major parties signing away the future in respect of the capacity of parliament to regulate in Australia's national interest, particularly when it comes to social and community policy in this country.

I note the ministers' responses earlier in the day—and certainly that from Minister Coonan—in respect of these same issues. I am quite surprised that they have been unable to answer some of the questions that seem to me to be pretty straightforward. If people are across the details of the free trade agreement, there ought to be some answer given to the questions that have been asked as part of this debate.

Whilst we support the amendments, we think that they should have gone even further and looked at proposing the introduction of new sections into the Broadcasting Services Act, the National Health Act and the Quarantine Act to ensure that the public interest was protected and, most of all, that no action could be taken in respect of these acts that takes US interests into account. I think this is at the heart of the issue that we are debating on this particular question. I think Senator Brown is right in pointing out that we do not get to debate the actual text of the free trade agreement—we are not dealing with that on this occasion, just with the enabling legislation. Some amendments have been put forward by the opposition, I think in a very flawed way, given that they had the hide to qualify the free trade agreement 42 times. It seems to me that they are picking two of these and leaving 40 unanswered. They were probably 42 good arguments about why the free trade agreement was flawed and why it should not be supported.

The processes of review, the panels to be established and the mechanisms for dealing with disputes are important issues when you consider the way in which this trade agreement has been put together as a preferential trade deal between Australia and the United States. Minister Hill spoke earlier about the sanitary and phytosanitary disputes. I would refer him and the government to the general practice under the WTO: there is already a committee that looks at these things on an ad hoc basis, as and when those disputes arise. There has never been any great problem with that. It was always regarded far and wide as the best way of addressing problems that people may have with, for example, quarantine laws that people believe are actually trade barriers in disguise.

I would ask why it is that the Australian government—certainly with the support of the United States—needs this new body with the United States under the free trade agreement. It seems to me that it is far more dangerous that the Australian public have been misled on this particular question—there are so many trapdoors hidden in this free trade agreement that we effectively rule ourselves out in terms of having any capacity to regulate in the interest of health policy, other social policy and certainly the way the community sector operates. I do not believe the government has been fully truthful in disclosing information about the impact this is going to have on the capacity of parliament to pass laws and deal with these issues if and when they arise, because we know things will go wrong; they will go off the track.

I think the Labor Party know that as well, and have responded by saying that they will put in an amendment to deal with the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. But at the same time they know this will be resolved not by looking at any legislation and where a dispute may arise but from within the actual text of the free trade agreement. That will be the overriding presumption in this case. They know that. I think the Australian people deserve to know they are being sold out on this particular issue.

I want to go back to the issue of quarantine standards. It seems to me that the WTO is already providing a legitimate forum to deal with any particular issues that arise as a result of a dispute or what was being used as a trade barrier. It is a forum that has been in existence for some time, and it is generally accepted that this is the preferred way to go with multilateral arrangements. I think the government need to answer this question. When they give a response to say that the United States will not bring pressure to bear in order to change circumstances in relation to this preferential trade deal, I draw their attention to and I ask them to make comment about the recent draft import risk assessment report done by Biosecurity Australia.

The assessment looked at the question of whether or not to allow Philippine bananas into Australia, because of the question of disease. The assessment that was done at the time was widely circulated. We all thought Biosecurity Australia would come out with a report that would provide the right sort of quarantine answers and, most of all, that there would be rigour applied through a scientific approach to an assessment of how trade might occur in that circumstance. Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister went to the Philippines and spoke to the Philippine government about this. He proposed to establish between the Philippines and Australia a body similar to the one established in the free trade agreement between Australia and the United States. Subsequent to that announcement, Biosecurity Australia changed its import risk assessment and proposed to allow banana imports into Australia. The precedent is already being set.

The government makes grand claims that our quarantine standards will be protected, that a scientific approach will occur and that our institutions—groups like Biosecurity Australia—will not have pressure applied to them by the larger and more powerful countries like the United States. But the precedent is here. The Prime Minister made sure that the change occurred. I am not suggesting that he was involved in changing this report, but what I do say is that allowing the Philippine government to export bananas to Australia has certainly set the precedent for how the US free trade agreement might be viewed, particularly in relation to quarantine and the assessment processes that our own institutions go through in dealing with this particular issue.

The crucial matter here is that, with the support of the Labor Party, the government have compromised and allowed the United States to have a role in determining Australian policy. Even if we accept the government's assertions that they will resist any undue pressure for policy to be changed, the fact is that through this free trade agreement we have allowed the voice of another nation to be heard on issues that should, I think, be determined by Australians alone, first and foremost.

On the issue of the PBS, we have to ask why we have gone down the path of creating an independent and separate review panel when we have a very adequate and able system already in place to deal with those types of issues. Through this free trade agreement we have put quarantine on the table, compromised multilateral processes and enabled the United States—not just the government but the large multinational pharmaceutical companies—to have their way with the PBS. The cracks are already there. I think the free trade agreement can ably be described as a piece of land with lots of cracks. The United States are like the water flowing over it and eventually they are going to go into it. If anyone thinks for a moment that the prices of medicines are not going to go up, they are kidding themselves. The sad thing is that we will not be able to come back and fix it because once this agreement is put in train that is how this is going to end up.

Even with the provisions for dispute resolutions, the evidence put before the Senate committee stated in general that trade tribunals operate in a more secretive way than any other in international law processes. The evidence about these new, alternative dispute mechanisms raises the question: how will not just the Australian parliament but the Australian public have an opportunity to gain confidence in the integrity of the process—that it is fair, that people are able to have input and that the outcome is one that is in Australia's interest—given that the bigger player in this case will have a far greater say?

In dealing with these issues it ought to be a very normal thing for the government and the opposition to support what is in Australia's national interest. Quite frankly, when we look at the chapters on cross-border trade in services, government procurement, transparency and investment, we know that representatives of the wealthier sectors have been involved in meetings with DFAT and have expressed their concerns in more than one discussion. The response from DFAT is that community services are not really the target in this free trade agreement; it is more concerned with financial, legal, professional and commercial matters.

The issue that needs to be raised is how the government has dealt with concerns that have been expressed by the community sector. It is a very legitimate question to ask why the government decided to agree with the United States in taking a negative list approach—that is, any area of policy dealt with by government in this country is on the table unless the government agrees with the United States to exclude it. The reality is that, as far as I am aware, there are no exclusions whatsoever, despite the fact that in the free trade agreement with Singapore we took a different approach and excluded Australian culture. But we were not brave enough to do that in this instance, and we are leaving our Australian cultural institutions open to what might come as a result of the size and nature of places like Hollywood.

I point out that the costs to users of community services provided by community organisations and government will eventually be borne by the Australian people. This issue goes to the government's capacity to regulate in our interests, particularly in the provision of services, and the question of how it is done, by looking at whether services are provided for profit or on a not-for-profit basis. Essentially, any services provided by government in competition with commercial providers may be seen to be inconsistent—and these issues are going to be resolved as time goes on.

The point is that many things are on the table that the government did not think ought to be removed. I want to mention some of them because they have not featured in the debate. We have spoken about the PBS and Australian content, but how will we deal with things such as child protection, youth services and the job network in this country? These services seem to be moving down the path of not necessarily being run by government but being more commercial in their operation. What about telephone counselling services such as Lifeline? Why did the government not include a schedule as part of the free trade agreement to exempt some of these services and take a positive list approach rather than a negative one? Emergency financial aid, aged care, residential care and nursing homes are all pretty much run on a commercial basis these days. The provision of community services will be directly impacted upon by harmonisation and integration with the United States. (Time expired)