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Trade Minister in Washington says there are no public commitments on a timetable for more talks on the hoped for free trade agreement with US.



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ELEANOR HALL: Australia’s federal Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, is leaving Washington today empty-handed. The much touted US-Australia free trade deal is, at least for now, going nowhere. The Minister hopes the delay is temporary and he says the Bush administration is probably considering American domestic politics before it announces a beginning to the talks. This report from our North America correspondent, Tim Lester, who went along to the Minister’s press conference in Washington.

 

TIM LESTER: Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, came to Washington expecting very little. In that sense, he read Washington well. The first sign of the difficulties the Bush administration has talking trade with Australia right now came yesterday. Trade representative, Robert Zoellick, on the eve of his talks with Minister Vaile, notified Congress of new trade negotiations with six countries—Australia was not among them. But that, insists Mr Vaile, was to be expected.

 

MARK VAILE: You will see that there is a consistency in the order of countries that have been identified as prospective and possible bilateral FTA partners, and it seems to me that the administration is following fairly well along that consistent outline of the countries that they identify.

 

TIM LESTER: So Australia’s turn is coming. Well, if so, the Bush administration is saying nothing about it. For Washington, a trade deal down under involves opening American agriculture to powerful competition, and the agricultural lobby here has already turned up the heat on the administration with little more than a month to go before mid-term elections. So when the President’s trade representative met our Trade Minister, today, there were no public commitments on a timetable for talks.

 

MARK VAILE: The timing is now a matter for the administration. I’ve made it very, very clear that we are ready and capable to begin as soon as we possibly can.

 

TIM LESTER: Minister, what has Mr Zoellick told you about that? It is a question you surely had to put to the trade representative. What has he said about the timing of the US involvement on this?

 

MARK VAILE: In general terms, we can certainly identify with the broader time frame but he also reminds me and also as he has said publicly in terms of working within the domestic environment here, in the United States, and I understand that. I am a politician. I am a politician from Australia. I know what it is like to work in a politically charged environment, and you’ve got to balance that.

 

TIM LESTER: That means nothing before 5 November, presumably?

 

MARK VAILE: I wouldn’t concur with that. That means that when it is the best timing for the administration, they may move.

 

TIM LESTER: But what about Australia’s record as a staunch US ally, especially as the Bush administration battles world opinion over its stance on Iraq? It was American journalists that raised the issue of trade’s connection to security with Minister Vaile.

 

MARK VAILE: We don’t deny that we are the closest of allies and in any discussion between any American and any Australian it is top of mind, particularly at the moment, and that is very, very important. And it doesn’t need to be said, in that regard. But certainly in terms of our ambitions, economically and in a trade sense, we believe that our case stands on the merits of the case.

 

TIM LESTER: But for all its merit, the case isn’t strong enough to stand in spite of US politics. The Minister’s visit here has added to the sense that pressure from the American agriculture lobby has done its job for now. The free trade talks will have to wait for a less sensitive time.

 

This is Tim Lester in Washington for the World Today .