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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 26219


Senator BROWN (8:16 PM) —Because it is such an important amendment that is being cast aside by the Labor Party here, I just want to reiterate the power of this amendment. The amendment used the international legal process to clarify the `constructive ambiguities', as they are called, which appear in the free trade agreement. It did that by clearing the air on the fact that, for all the mechanisms that can be set up by government without the agreement of parliament, it could not do that in a way which would infringe on the best interests of Australia when it came to a whole range of issues from quarantine to local content, from the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to health, safety and the environment. It did that by making it clear that, in each case, the reservation that Australia has that it might lose out here was to be clarified. For example, with the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, there was to be no evergreening and the appeals mechanism was not allowed to interfere with the pricing and listing process that Australia has in place now which make it the best system in the world. Labor's amendments do not do the latter; there is no assurance they do the former.

When it comes to cultural content, this would ensure that this parliament had the right to protect cultural content, not just on existing broadcasting modes but into the future with whatever might come up, and to increase local content if we want to—and, if we want to decrease it, it would allow us to increase it again after some government comes along. The opposition's amendment is to prevent ratcheting, but it does not do anything about the prohibition on our having content rules for yet undiscovered broadcasting means which will come in and take over very quickly in the future. It does not allow for this parliament in future to increase the local content required on Australian broadcasting services.

Again, here is a mechanism for looking after the public interest and for those people who have campaigned long and hard in those areas to make sure that this is the opportunity for parliament to ensure that we do not let it go—and Labor is voting this amendment down. If there is one thing that is going to be debated strongly in the coming election, it will be the free trade agreement. If there is one thing that we will have to tell everybody that asks us about it, it is that Labor—I think Senator Ridgeway had the statistics—is looking after two of the 42 areas of concern. That is a bit under five per cent of the problem. And there is doubt about one of those two mechanisms that Labor has got—so much doubt that the Prime Minister is out there twiddling the knobs on Labor's amendment at the moment to make sure it fits in with the wishes of the White House, no doubt.

Tonight this amendment, perhaps more so than other amendments—although they are all so important—is an exemplar of the failure of this opposition in a matter as important as this to defend the national interest. Above all, the national interest has to be to defend our democratic system and the empowerment of this parliament; above all, that is what Labor is selling out to the executive heavy mindset of the Howard government. We are just about to get a division which shows that. Labor is going to go over, Chair—and I am very pleased you are in the chair, Temporary Chairman Kirk—and vote with the government to vote down this nation-saving amendment on these matters which have been so contentious in the public arena. It is appalling. The sad thing is that the folk out there who are concerned about all these areas are being disempowered by this next vote, if this amendment does not get up. There are not going to be opportunities further down the line. There will be inquiries, reports back and getting institutions to tell parliament how it is getting on further down the line, but this opportunity is gone and it is because Labor let it go—conspired to let it go. It is a pretty poor comment on the once great party of social justice and democracy that this is happening.

There is a great determination right across the crossbench to at least put on record moments like this that will haunt many people for many decades to come, because we cannot get back to rescue the situation. Labor is going to put the free trade agreement through, so why on earth not put in this safeguard? It is within the square; it is allowed by the free trade agreement. America does it all the time. Senator the Hon. Peter Cook has done it in an international agreement. In the scientific and technical agreement between Australia and the European Community in 1994 he made a unilateral declaration to make sure that it was understood that Australia's interests were going to be protected. Ten years down the line, Labor is not up to doing that. It is not even going to put in a clause like Senator Peter Cook put in way back then, because it has drifted further and further away from being the guardian of the national interest. Some alternative government! Some alternative prospect to look forward to, isn't it! Some alternative to the Howard years and the Howard philosophy! It is writ large in what is now this Howard-Latham Australia-US free trade agreement. We have to respect democracy, but the hardest time to simply abide by the rules of democracy is when democracy is being undermined. That is what is happening here tonight. The right of the people to elect representatives to in all cases look after the national interest is being frittered away by a failed opposition at this moment in parliamentary history.