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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31515

Ms HALL (1:50 PM) —Before I make my contribution to the debate on the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004, I would like to associate myself with the contribution of the previous speaker. I think he made some outstanding points about the need to maintain our sovereignty and about issues such as sugar, jobs within the manufacturing industry, local content on television and the need for us to really look at this piece of legislation seriously. I commend him for the outstanding contribution he made.

It is with some reluctance that I rise to speak on this legislation as I do not believe that the merits of signing this so-called free trade agreement have been established. The bill has been introduced into the parliament five minutes before the winter recess with the aim of preventing proper parliamentary scrutiny and debate and impeding the democratic process. I am debating it today, the day after the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties tabled its report, the same day that the Senate select committee on the free trade agreement is to deliver an interim report and almost two months before it is due to report.

The fact that the legislation is being debated today is a blatant distortion of the democratic process and is more about political point scoring than good government. This is a government that is in election mode. It is a government that is not focused on what is good for Australia; it is only interested in what is good for it. A decision on whether Australia should sign the US free trade agreement should be based on fact, not on preconceptions or on whether or not the Prime Minister will be invited to another barbecue with George Bush at the ranch. The Howard government is only interested in pleasing its masters and painting Labor as anti-American and un-Australian, which is not true.

We on this side recognise and appreciate the enormous contributions that the US has made to the world and we like to be associated with them in many ways. But, on the other hand, the Labor Party are pro-Australian and we believe that any decision that is made should be in the best interests of Australia and the Australian people. What is in the best interests of Australia and the Australian people is proper scrutiny of the 1,000-page document that is the free trade agreement—scrutiny that allows Australians to express their opinions and that allows full and thorough economic analysis of the impact that this agreement will have on Australian industries, the Australia people and the Australian economy.

The Howard government is treating this parliament and the Australian people with contempt, and it should be condemned for that. The US process is much more transparent and consultative and is unlike the process that we in Australia have before us. Proper scrutiny of the free trade agreement has been taken seriously by the US Congress, which is not expected to vote on it until mid-July. This means that Congress is examining all the implications that the agreement has for the US and making sure that the US will not be affected detrimentally by this legislation. It is ensuring that the agreement is in the national interest. The Howard government should be ensuring that the free trade agreement is in Australia's national interest and, foremost, it should not be just answering to its masters. It is all about what is best for Australia and not what is best for the government or how it can maintain close friendships with certain people in the US.

My question to the government is: can it be demonstrated that this agreement is in the best interests of the nation? Will its cost implications and the potential to impact on our way of life be greater than the benefits it delivers? Some other questions I have are: will this legislation give drug companies the right to seek reviews of decisions of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee and make changes to laws that may delay the production of cheaper generic drugs? In a moment I will discuss in more detail the implications that I believe it has for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and how it could add $1.5 billion to the cost of the scheme each year.

Will this legislation restrict Australian voices in the media by limiting the right to have Australian content in new forms of media? Once again, I think this is a question that has not been properly examined and answered at this stage. Will the adoption of US copyright laws have a net cost for Australia? I truly believe that this government needs to look at this more thoroughly than it has to date. So my question to the government is: will this agreement bring the promised economic gains that they expect? I think that there are some issues around the limited access to US agricultural markets, and these have been well detailed in Senate submissions from Dr Philippa Dee from the ANU and the Productivity Commission and from Dr Peter Brain. They have predicted that this will result in small gains, and possibly losses, to the Australian economy.

I would like to turn now to pharmaceutical benefits and the impact of this free trade agreement on the price of drugs. One of the issues that has been raised and examined by the Senate select committee in some detail and on which a number of submissions have been received by it is that the free trade agreement will inevitably lead to higher drug prices. It is argued that the agreement is unbalanced and that most measures increase the pricing power of the US drug companies operating in Australia. I believe that the free trade agreement has the potential to significantly undermine the effectiveness of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and reduce the affordability of medicines in Australia.

Intellectual property rights that revolve around pharmaceutical benefits is another issue that I am quite concerned about. The US is seeking changes to Australia's intellectual property laws, particularly in relation to pharmaceuticals. These changes have the capacity to undermine the effectiveness of the PBS and to lead to higher costs. IP regulations like those discussed in the free trade agreement have led to extensions of pharmaceutical monopolies by delaying or preventing the entry of low-cost generics into the market.

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 101A. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.