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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31590

Ms GRIERSON (8:31 PM) —In continuation on the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation Bill 2004 and the US Free Trade Agreement Implementation (Customs Tariff) Bill 2004, I was drawing attention to the fact that we have seen many of our institutions and public facilities threatened during the term of this government. I was drawing attention particularly to areas such as public education, public hospitals, universities, Telstra, aged care, and, of course, the PBS. Fortunately, although there has been some tough debate on that issue this week, Labor have identified that by cleaning up the PBS by facilitating generics and perhaps removing the commercial interests of drug companies from the PBS Advisory Council we would be able to afford, and effect in government, considerable savings—that, of course, is our hope—and perhaps avoid a very unpalatable decision to increase copayments. Of course, that option is only at our disposal should we be in government.

However, to add to the concerns that we feel about the US free trade agreement, today it has been revealed in the interim report that those concerns do very much run to manufacturing and industry. It is suggested that under the US free trade agreement most tariffs would be reduced to zero. The interim report says:

... since US manufacturing tariffs are generally lower than Australian manufacturing tariffs, Australian tariffs will have further to fall. This will eliminate any obvious benefit to the Australian economy ...

Those are the sorts of concerns coming out of the interim report. Without seeing the full report, we do not know the impact on the Australian nation. In any discussion regarding free trade it must be remembered that the trade barriers that are the greatest threat to countries who have considerable economic domination, like the United States, are the things we in Australia perhaps value most: our government regulated and subsidised health sector; our government regulated and subsidised education sectors; and our research sector, communications services and utilities, which are all subsidised by government in some way. Historically these direct subsidies have allowed services and associated infrastructure to be delivered with some sort of equity across this very vast nation, overcoming distance, isolation and the wealth divide. In many ways, our government-provided or government-regulated services—particularly the ones we would see as essential, such as the provision of blood products, and the PBS—would also be seen as anticompetitive by countries such as the United States of America. In fact, there are often inbuilt monopolistic tendencies in our public service provision, but they are, after all, publicly funded through the contributions of Australian taxpayers, and they exist for the national interest—they have also delivered well in the past for the national interest.

Finally, the opposition have considerable concern that until the Senate report is studied in detail we certainly cannot make an informed decision for the Australian public about the worth and benefits of the FTA. I remind the Australian public, though, that any decision made has to be an informed one. Even though we approach a very controversial and difficult time in the political cycle, decisions like the free trade agreement certainly do result from government policy. As I have said, this one was initiated personally by John Howard. It was not initiated by industry, business sectors or agricultural sectors. It was asked for by our Prime Minister—perhaps he felt there was some payback needed. It has certainly dominated the activities of many departments. It has cost us a great deal of money so far. As I said, prime ministerial visits to America and presidential visits to Australia do not come cheap. Let us hope that, when we do get the opportunity to review the free trade agreement and the Senate inquiry into that, we will make the best decision for this country.

Debate (on motion by Mr Katter) adjourned.