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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31511

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (1:30 PM) —The US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004 are very historic bills. It is true that sometimes in this place laws that are proposed and accepted, or indeed rejected, have a great bearing upon the course of Australia's future and upon the future of all of us. Alongside the debate we had about whether to invade Iraq, this debate is one of great national significance. It has been indicated already in this debate that the Labor Party are not opposed to the bills altogether but that we have serious reservations about the merit of the draft agreement struck by the US and Australian governments. I say `draft agreement' because not only has it not passed through our parliament; it has not passed through the US congress.

The truth is that the government is playing politics with this very significant piece of legislation. It is putting politics over good policy. If the government were serious about properly scrutinising the pros and cons of the US free trade agreement, it would allow the processes of the parliament to take place. It would ensure there was proper analysis and scrutiny of the pros and cons to weigh up whether there was in fact a net gain, and it would ensure that it was in the nation's interest and that it was good for Australians. But I do not think that we have seen today an exercise of good government by the Howard government. We have seen, instead, an effort to prematurely have the parliament make a decision about a very complex matter that has huge consequences for the country. I think it is also fair to say that there should have been the capacity for the report of the Senate select committee on the free trade agreement to be handed down, and its recommendations properly considered by members and senators, before embarking upon this matter.

As other speakers have said, the processes of the US congress have not been exhausted, which undermines the contention that has been put by the government that it is critical that the matter is dealt with now. The reality is that it will be some three weeks before the US parliamentary processes have been exhausted, so we do not know whether the agreement will be adopted by the United States congress. So there is no need to push ahead prematurely with this matter. This is about pushing ahead in order to try to score a political point, but all it will do is undermine the good processes of this place and, indeed, the government's credibility on what is a very important area.

There are a number of areas that are of concern to me. I know that some members are concerned about areas of the agreement that may affect their electorates, and there are other matters that are of concern to all of us. There is no doubt that there is concern in the North Queensland seats because the sugar industry was entirely omitted from the agreement. There is no doubt that sugar farmers would feel that they have been sacrificed in the negotiations and that they clearly are the losers, because they were not even considered in the document when it was finally drafted by this government and the US administration. Those sugar farmers no doubt feel that they have been ignored, and of course the Prime Minister thinks he can go up to North Queensland and throw money at the problem, but it just shows again that this government is not willing to defend very important sectors of this community in order to get the best deal for all sectors. So sugar has been sacrificed, and there has been an effort to throw some money at the problem, but I do not think the sugar farmers will be happy. They know now that this government has no regard for them or their future, and the money that the government provided, even though it was a reasonable sum, will not buy the loyalty of sugar farmers to support this government. We know that the sugar industry was willingly sacrificed by the Minister for Trade and the Prime Minister.

I have some concerns in relation to some other areas, and the member for Swan and others have mentioned them. I think it is critical to say that, in assessing whether this is a good or bad agreement, we have to consider the economic, social and cultural consequences of agreeing or not agreeing to it. Many of my constituents have been concerned about the free trade agreement's impact on jobs, health—particularly pharmaceutical costs—intellectual property and culture.

This week and earlier members of parliament have been meeting with community members representing different interests, and I have to say there have been many serious concerns raised about this so-called agreement. In relation to manufacturing, there have been assertions made by Professor Peter Brain that there would be job losses—in the automotive industry and in manufacturing industry generally. Many thousands of jobs would be lost, it has been asserted. I do not know whether that is true or not but I would certainly want to be convinced that this was not the case—that it is not the case that we are willing to sacrifice jobs in the manufacturing industry and rush through a document in order to satisfy the self-interest of the Prime Minister and the government. I hope it is not the case that people would in fact lose their jobs as a result of this agreement, and I would like to be convinced of that.

In relation to cultural content, there has certainly been a huge debate in the community about the dangers of sacrificing our local film and television content and risking an increase in what is already to some, I suppose, a flood of US-produced shows on television, and I think that concern has to be allayed. There has to be some assurance given that we will not surrender our cultural sovereignty to a much larger country that is able to produce many more shows for us to watch on television. I think it is critical, and it has been said by others, that we are able to ensure that there is a certain minimum of time on television for Australian shows, with Australians writing the material, producing the material and indeed acting in those productions.

It is critical for this nation, in order to know who we are and in order to ensure that our culture survives, that we have proper local content laws. There have been questions raised about this matter; indeed, there are concerns. As many would know, currently commercial networks must show a level of 55 per cent Australian content between 6 a.m. and midnight, 32 hours of Australian first-release children's drama and 130 hours a year of preschool programs. There are also currently rules for Australian content in drama and documentary programs.

The concern is that under the free trade agreement the rules for Australian content on network television can never be increased. That is the first concern that we and many others have. On pay television the vast majority of channels will have no Australian content rules at all. Children's channels on pay television may be able to introduce Australian content rules; however, these rules, if ever introduced, according to the draft agreement would require no more than four per cent Australian content to be shown on children's channels. These are the sorts of concerns people have.

Whether we like it or not, television has become probably the most powerful medium in people's homes. It would probably be preferable if we spent more time reading or listening to the radio and in other pursuits, but the fact is that television is a very power-ful medium. Therefore, it seems to me that regulators have a responsibility to ensure we get balanced programming and that we reflect in television programming our own cultural identity in an effective manner. Concerns have been raised, none of which have been properly responded to by the government, in my view. I think it is something that has to be properly considered, and there has to be an unequivocal assurance given by the government that we will not surrender our cultural sovereignty in this particular area. We are not a large country—we are a small country in economic terms—but we are a country proud of our history and we want to see Australians on television talking to other Australians, allowing us to watch ourselves, if you like, not only foreign based productions. So it is a critical issue.

I do not want to play Chicken Little. I do not want to say, `The sky is falling in!' but the fact is we have to ensure that this matter is properly resolved and that fears in the community that we are losing our local identity are allayed. I had the opportunity to meet representatives from the film and television industry yesterday, and I think they quite eloquently put their concerns to us. They were not in any way extreme in their comments; they were just concerned, like most citizens, about ensuring that we have proper local content on our television and we continue to have a decent film industry producing films with Australian content. I think that is a very grave concern.

The other concern we have is about pharmaceuticals. There have been many submissions made, I know, to the Senate select committee. I have obviously had the opportunity to read some of the submissions made. There is a very compelling submission on this matter, the authors of which are Professor Peter Drahos, Dr Thomas Faunce, Martyn Goddard and Professor David Henry, all of whom are experts in the field. They have raised particular concerns about pharmaceuticals and about the potential hike in prices that would occur if we were to enter into this agreement. I would like to go briefly to a number of points made in their submission. Firstly, they indicate:

A close look at the FTA indicates that this is not the most likely outcome. The text of the Agreement is unbalanced and most of the measures increase the pricing power of US drug companies operating in Australia. It is inconceivable, based on past practice, that they will not make use of that new pricing power.

They go on to ask, rhetorically, how much it would cost, and say:

American consumers, insurers and health programs pay two to three times as much for many important drugs as their Australian counterparts. Because most of the measures in the FTA apply to new drugs rather than existing ones, and because legislation will need to be enacted, regulations changed and new procedures put in place, there will be a substantial time-lag between the signing of the FTA and its full effect on prices.

However, it concludes:

The full effect of the FTA on the pharmaceutical market is therefore unlikely to be felt for about five years.

This clearly points out that, whilst we may not feel immediate consequences as a result of entering into this agreement as it is currently formed, there is a strong likelihood that in only five years time prices for pharmaceuticals will rise very high. The community want to be assured that they are not going to have to pay exorbitant prices.

We have a very effective health system in this country. There are some weaknesses—and the opposition has been focusing on those and hoping the government will attend to them—but there are some serious concerns about the hiking up of pharma-ceuticals and those concerns have not been allayed by comments from the government. There has been no capacity for the Senate committee to formally hand down its recommendations and to take into account that contention in the submission that I have referred to. This again undermines the government's position. Not allowing the Senate select committee appointed by the parliament to make recommendations for our consideration concerns me and concerns Labor members generally.

There are a number of critical areas of concern in this matter. We know that the sugar industry has been completely ignored in relation to this agreement and will suffer the consequences. Quite credible assertions have been made that there will be job losses in the manufacturing industry, and people want to be assured that that will not be the case. There are concerns about our local content on television and about losing our cultural identity.

I am not against US culture; there are some fine things in US culture. I have been inspired by writers like Joseph Heller, John Steinbeck and many others who have come out of America. I am not against US culture, but I am against untrammelled US cultural hegemony. I am against having US culture at the expense of all other culture and of our own culture. This government has failed to properly have regard to the concerns of the community in relation to that matter. I am a republican. I would like to see an Australian head of state one day. But there are many ways to surrender your sovereignty. Unfortunately, if some of the things people have raised concerns about in relation to this agreement happen, I think we will be seeing a surrender of our sovereignty in many areas. We will potentially be seeing the surrender of our cultural sovereignty and our economic sovereignty.

There are concerns that this agreement has more of a corporate objective than the objectives of two nations. We have to ensure that domestic sovereign states and domestic laws are not undermined by the objectives of some corporate organisations. We are in danger of losing some economic control and regulation over our economy. I know we live in a globalised world, and a lot of benefits flow from globalisation. There have been costs but there have also been benefits. But we do not want to see the only things on the agenda being those that the large multinational companies want to put forward and not what people want to put forward—not concern about local jobs in the community but only about what is the interests of the large corporations. Therefore, this government has to seriously have regard to the assertions that have been made in relation to many of these factors. To date it has not done so.

Today the government has introduced a number of bills in order to play politics. If it were seriously concerned about the consequences of the free trade agreement, it would allow a proper consideration by the Senate select committee, it would allow proper consideration by members of parliament generally and it would listen to the community representatives of many sectors who are concerned about the potential downside of this agreement. There has been no proper regard for those things, and that is why I am very concerned that this is about politics and not about good policy. I hope the government opens its ears, listens to people's concerns and has proper regard for some of the things I and other Labor members have raised in this debate.