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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26282


Senator BROWN (10:09 AM) —We need to be assured, before we agree to this motion, that there will not be a truncation of the time for discussing committee reports at that hour. What a remarkable thing for the parliament: we are going to sit here until midnight again. This morning the Prime Minister revealed why that is so. I thought it was because there was some delay. Last night we got up to the opposition amendment in relation to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme on the free trade agreement legislation but the amendment was not here. It could not be dealt with. Senator Conroy said he did not want to put it forward. It turned out that the negotiations with the government had not been completed. All the very complex but very important amendments that came from the Democrats, One Nation and the Greens—despite their limited staff—had been delivered, debated and intelligently put to the committee, with the government or the opposition being unable to give any response to these amendments which would save Australia's national interest. But when we came to the single amendment about the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, Labor could not move it because it was not ready and they had not completed talks with the Prime Minister.

We thought Mr Latham and Mr Howard together had not completed their talks but this morning the Prime Minister made it clear that the real reason there had not been progress here was that he had rung President Bush and President Bush had not given agreement to this amendment. So we are going to sit until midnight tonight and the whole thing has been delayed because we are waiting for President Bush to make up his mind. We will not get the response from President Bush so the Prime Minister said today that the Americans could say that the amendment we were going to deal with is inconsistent and that they may not accept the free trade agreement—and it would be Labor's fault. Doesn't that give the game away?

By the way, the Prime Minister said—and isn't this a thought-provoking statement from our Prime Minister?—that no Prime Minister in his right mind would agree to any agreement which weakened the PBS, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Hear, hear to that! It makes you think, doesn't it? This free trade agreement will weaken our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The Prime Minister is saying, `We can't guarantee the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme because the Americans won't allow an amendment that Labor has proposed.' It is a very tiny amendment. The Americans will not give it approval. They have to think about it after our parliament has considered the matter. If the US administration does not like the amendment—that means, if the drug corporations do not like the amendment—the free trade agreement is off.

The Prime Minister might think that that would be a spectacular potential win with the Australian electorate but he wants to be very careful. Australians have a great relationship with Americans but their relationship with the American administration is a different matter, and if there is one thing Australians will not like it is having the shots for this country called from the White House. This is an independent nation. This is Australia. This is not the 51st state of the United States, and we expect our Prime Minister to be telling, not asking, the United States that if there is an amendment in this parliament which goes a small way towards protecting the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme—and Prime Minister Howard says that at worst it does not hurt—then this parliament will rule. In Australia it is not, `The US rules okay' but `Australia rules okay.'

The Greens object to our being delayed all the way down the line while the Prime Minister makes his phone calls to George W. Bush to see if it is all right if we have an amendment to a law in this country to defend the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Whatever the conversation between Prime Minister Howard and George W. Bush was, the deputy sheriff was left hanging on the end of the phone with no clear answer. We will have to wait and see. Mr Bush in his inestimable, predictable way has handed the matter across to the drug companies, of course, and their lawyers are going through it over there in California at the moment, determining whether it is in their interests or not. If it is not in their interests the free trade agreement will be held off until some other session of parliament, until we get it right here in Australia—until we fall into line.

How could the Prime Minister of this country have a press conference this morning and say that he does not know whether the free trade agreement is on or off because George W. Bush will not tell him whether he can accept this tiny amendment to ensure the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme? George W. Bush is not the elected head of state of this country. You would expect that the elected Prime Minister would have the gumption to say that he has told the US that this amendment, if it goes through this parliament, stands—that is it, full stop. Not only is parliament being delayed at the pleasure of George W. Bush but we are also getting a very clear indication here of why this free trade agreement is not in this nation's interest. It does not matter whether it is the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, quarantine, jobs in manufacturing, the environment, cultural content or intellectual property, but in future when we determine these matters in this parliament, Mr Howard or Mr Latham, first of all—because Mr Latham is going to vote for this as well if he is Prime Minister—is going to ring George W. Bush and say, `Is this okay?'

Come off it! It is time the big parties here—the Labor Party as well as the government—got some spine. George W. Bush said in this parliament last October that `fair dinkum' meant `man of steel'. It shows you how much he knew about Australia. Where is the man of steel now? This quivering Prime Minister has to ring up the White House to see if we can put an amendment through the Senate to defend the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Really! Has it come to that?

We are dealing here with an arrangement of sittings of the Senate to deal with this free trade agreement, which is being held up by the inability so far of the US drug corporations to determine whether or not they will accept this very weak amendment from the Labor Party. I object. We should not be sitting here tonight. This should have been dealt with on our terms, on Australia's terms, in this Australian parliament. The Prime Minister said today that it does not matter what we do in the Senate—or what they do in the House of Representatives, for that matter. This matter is not going to be resolved by the debate; it is left to some drug company lawyers in America. We will await in the coming weeks their determination as to whether the free trade agreement is on or off. What is the point of us having a debate in here? What is the point of us making a determination when both of the big parties are handing sovereignty not just to the White House but also to drug company lawyers in the United States? The Prime Minister tells us that we can get our amendment through—it is not going to affect things much—but that the free trade agreement might be off if he gets a message from George W. Bush in the next couple of weeks saying: `We have decided that we will not have that amendment. It is not going to help the profit line of one of the big companies.' What a way to treat this parliament.

We object. And the least we can do is to oppose this motion as a symbol of the fact that we object to the sitting hours here being rearranged at the pleasure of people over in United States working out whether or not legislation in here is good enough for them. And we object to the whole idea the Prime Minister introduced into Australian democracy this morning that it does not matter what parliament does on matters like pharmaceutical benefits—and add to that quarantine, intellectual property, cultural identity, the environment and jobs—because the final determination is going to be made over there in Washington. Not with us it won't be! We will be voting against this motion and we will be voting against this free trade agreement.