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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26289

Senator BROWN (10:47 AM) —I will explain to Senator Carr that last night we all had to go home because Labor could not move the amendments because the government had not agreed, because George W. Bush had not agreed. This morning the Prime Minister said that we will not get agreement from George W. Bush until after the Senate is finished and that that will be the final arbitration on the matter. So we are now left to hear the Labor amendments put, presumably with the government going to a debate on those. I just want to clarify that—far from the Greens, the Democrats and One Nation delaying the chamber—the opposition and government could not bring forward the amendments last night. We have now got them and we should debate them.

I will also say this about the amendments while we are waiting for the opposition to get ready to move them. I can foreshadow that the Greens will be moving an amendment to the Labor amendments to toughen them up a bit. We believe they are inherently weak—I do not know what Mr Howard and Mr Bush are worried about. I want to point out that, while they move on evergreening, the test is too weak and we will be moving an amendment to them to strengthen it. We believe even the penalties are very modest when compared to the potential billions of dollars that drug companies get from the processes we are discussing.

But the really important thing is to look at what is not in the Labor Party amendments. There is not an amendment here to deal with a process which could lead, through arbitration under the free trade agreement, to a challenging of the decisions of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme board when it makes a determination to either not allow a drug to be listed or not give it the price that a drug company wants. Let us make no mistake about this: the US pharmaceutical industry wants to undermine the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The scheme, which came in way back in the prime ministership of Ben Chifley, is now recognised as the best in the world. It delivers cheaper medicines, and I have seen figures that they are from a half to a quarter of the price that people have to pay in the United States. It makes expensive drugs universally available to everyone in Australia, including the poor who are sick. Its costs have been increasing, of course, but taxpayers have been prepared to fund it, even given what it costs, because people getting sick because they could not afford the drugs would end up costing us a lot more money through the medical system.

What an extraordinary system it is in the United States, with 30 million people not having access to hospitals. Just last week we saw on the FourCorners program the story of an elderly lady in one of the New England states who goes to Canada once or twice a year to buy her suite of drugs because that saves her thousands of dollars, because the Canadians have at least got some moderation of drug prices compared to the rip-off of the pharmaceutical corporations in America—and it is a rip-off. They are making extraordinary profits out of the illness of people. Nobody cavils at the wonder of pharmaceutical science in this age and its ability to cut across illnesses which were once irremediable, but the talk by the Republican senator on the Four Corners program—indicating that Australian prices are too low and should be raised and that Australians, as users of drugs, should have to pay more for what he claimed was the research into and development of drugs—sent a chill down my spine, as I am sure it did with many other viewers.

The pharmaceutical companies in the United States are out to get our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. It is not about the cost of development; it is about lining their pockets. That is what we are dealing with here today. The Greens, the Democrats and One Nation have already moved amendments in committee which would vouchsafe our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. What those amendments have said in brief is that nothing under this free trade agreement will affect our right, through the system we have, to determine prices and listings on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in Australia. And guess what? Labor went across and voted with the government against those amendments. Labor had the opportunity to make absolutely sure and watertight that the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme would not be undermined by the free trade agreement and then several times last night went across and voted with the Howard government.

Senator Conroy —Get the egg-beater out!

Senator BROWN —Senator Conroy, coming in late, can make his claims about egg-beaters, but the froth is with Labor when it comes to a real test here: over they go and vote with the government—and they did it repeatedly. The press gallery has gone into overdrive about this jousting between Mr Latham and Mr Howard over this amendment. I am sure there will be another stack of it today about who caved in—did John Howard undermine or are the Labor Party undermining the free trade agreement? The fact is that this amendment is pathetic. It does not address—

Senator Conroy —Are you going to vote for it?

Senator BROWN —The answer to that is, yes, because anything—

Senator Conroy —Now you sound like John Howard.

Senator BROWN —Why?

Senator Conroy —It is unnecessary, it is hopeless, but you are going to vote for it.

Senator BROWN —Yes, because, Senator Conroy—through you, Madam Temporary Chairman—the Labor Party sold out on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme last night. So the best we can get at this stage are the weak and pathetic—as you described them—amendments from the Labor Party. But even with the weak and pathetic amendments, we had the Prime Minister ringing George W. Bush, as he explained to the nation this morning, and he has not been able to get an answer out of him. Mr Bush has not made up his mind as to whether or not he will accept this amendment. Why won't he? Because the lawyers of the pharmaceutical companies, the big corporations, have not decided whether they will accept this amendment in the Australian parliament. If they do not, the free trade agreement is off.

What an appalling affront to Australian democracy this is. What has happened serially in this debate is that the Labor Party have been supporting the Howard government in removing the ability of this parliament to determine these matters in the interests of the country. Now an amendment is going to be put forward. It has not been moved yet, and they could not move it last night: they were not ready because Prime Minister Howard had not made a determination because President Bush had not made a determination—and he still has not. It just makes you angry that the Labor Party have caved in on so much in this free trade agreement.

Basically, what is frustrating about this debate is that, with a few honourable exceptions in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and a few other outlets, the debate going out to the public is not explaining how we are losing our democracy here. We are losing our right to determine what is or is not good for this country to a new system set up, outside the reach of our courts and our parliament, called a joint committee, with a dozen other subcommittees, with people appointed not by this parliament but by Prime Minister Howard and George W. Bush, who then appoint others. You bet the pharmaceutical companies will have a say on that. You bet the big corporations will have a say on that. And when you get to that arbitration commission, guess what? Can the average Australian take part in the arbitration? No, they can send a letter—that is it; full stop—and if the commission does not want to read their letter, it does not. When it makes a decision about the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, intellectual property, cultural amenity or the environment in this country, where is the appeals mechanism? There is not any. We are disempowered.

Worse still, last night the Labor Party voted against a Democrat sunset clause which would mean this parliament would have to review this in three years time to see how it is going—further disempowering the parliament. Prime Minister Howard got on the airwaves this morning to say that Labor have sought technical amendments to reduce the possibility of the free trade agreement succeeding—and that is what we are about to hear moved now. The Americans could say, `It is inconsistent and will not be acceptable.' Well, isn't that the pits?

The amendment we will be dealing with here will not end here: the Americans will say whether or not it is acceptable. George W. Bush, when he gets the call from the pharmaceutical companies' lawyers, is going to ring John Howard, Prime Minister of this country, and say, `The FTA is off,' if they do not like the amendment we are about to deal with, or, `It's on,' if they can accept it. That is horrendous. Defending the national interest? This Prime Minister is pulling the rug from under it. What is worse, the Leader of the Opposition is tugging with him. It has been left to the crossbench to defend the national interest here—right across the spectrum. Let us hear the Labor amendment.

The Greens will move to amend the amendment to make it less pathetic, Senator Conroy. That is all we can do. As the Leader of the Government in the Senate said a while ago, this is one of the great issues we will deal with in this parliament, but in my book the government and the opposition are pulling the rug from under the right of this parliament, in an elected democracy, to determine what is good for this country on a whole range of matters into the future. We will have this debate many years from now, as the Canadian, Mexican and American interests are doing over NAFTA, on issues which are not determined.

This agreement is determinedly vague. We must leave it to the faceless ayatollah of trade yet to be appointed by the Howard government to determine what gets through and what does not on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, on jobs, on manufacturing, on quarantine—on the whole lot of it. It will not be determined by this parliament. The ayatollah of trade will not be answerable to this parliament in a process which is not determined by this parliament and which is out of reach of the Australian people and out of reach of the average American as well. That is what is wrong with this process. Fiddling at the edge by the Labor Party brings the whole thing into doubt, says Prime Minster Howard. It is time Prime Minister Howard got a backbone. It is time Prime Minister Howard respected democracy in this country. It is time Prime Minister Howard recognised that this parliament should run the affairs of this country—not his executive, not his phone line to George W. Bush and certainly not the pharmaceutical corporations in California.