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Thursday, 12 August 2004
Page: 26447

Senator RIDGEWAY (9:28 AM) —I will not take up much of the time of the Senate in dealing with this issue, but I do want to put on record the views of the Australian Democrats in relation to this debate. It has certainly been a very long one over the last two weeks. Whilst many here might think we have had a chance to go through the issues, it is important to remind ourselves in this place again and again that we are not debating the free trade agreement, because that got dealt with by the government. It was dealt with separately. What we are debating is the enabling legislation. In many respects, the many chapters in the free trade agreement have been neglected in terms of proper debate, proper scrutiny and proper review. It is not enough for the government to hide behind the rhetoric that the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, the Senate Select Committee on the Free Trade Agreement between Australia and the United States of America and the various reports are sufficient in and of themselves in giving us, as Australians, an opportunity to see what the impacts of this free trade agreement are going to be.

We all ought to be very clear that the free trade agreement has been struck in such a way that it not only is a preferential deal but tips the balance in favour of the United States to the extent that our environmental policy, our social policy, particularly in relation to health, and our cultural policy—all of these policies—are subordinate to it. In effect, the national interest has been made subordinate to our alliance with the United States. It is correct that they will have a greater say.

The minister has continually said that we are taking a flexible and non-predetermined approach to how we deal with particular issues and that many things—the PBS, for example, as it relates to the pricing mechanism for medicines—are not on the table. Yet he could not give any real explanation for why we needed review processes and why dispute resolution mechanisms provided opportunities for private individuals—not members of the US government, not even members of the Australian government, but private individuals—representing corporations to have a greater say. People ought to understand very clearly that we have created a situation where public policy will be dealt with in a private rather than a public way. Our policies have been made subordinate to the text of the free trade agreement, which has also given many US corporations a foot in the door.

We have been fighting it all along because, whilst we support fair trade, no-one could ever say that this is either a free trade agreement or a fair one. In fact, it is fundamentally flawed in many respects. I am astounded and dumbfounded that the opposition have seen fit to support the government in making this law to support the free trade agreement. Quite frankly, it is not a question of the opposition saying, `These are the things we are going to do when we get elected to office.' As a result of this massive cave-in, I would ask this question: `What are they going to do when they are in opposition?' They may well still be in opposition as a result of this, and I think the concerns of all of the people out there who feel betrayed by what has occurred on this day are legitimate. It is a black day, being black Friday. We have tried to talk about this in a fair and open way. The government have tried to paint our response as reactionary or sensationalist. I would describe it as realistic, as a response that takes account of the evidence put before us through the various inquiries.

While we have responded in this way, the opposition and the government have only been able to talk about this in strange, science fiction terms. All they can say is: `The truth is out there'—somewhere; and when they talk about the spirit the only one that they can evoke is one from bad US television. I think we have to ask whether this is really an episode of The Bold and the Beautiful. Will our Senate just turn into The West Wing? Our ability to determine our own future has been compromised to a high degree.

The Australian Democrats have held as a united team and have been firmly committed to making sure that the deal does not come into force, because it is a dud; it is a bad deal. I congratulate my Senate colleagues and others on the crossbenches for their efforts in this critical debate. Without their contributions many of the issues that have come forward would not have been aired, but there are many others that have not been debated at all. Asking the questions is about guaranteeing the role of the Senate as the house of review and providing an opportunity for people out there to be informed. It ensures that there is an honest and sensible debate. The public deserve that. I think all of us would appreciate that that is the role the Senate ought to play, irrespective of the frustrations that might be felt from time to time.

The free trade agreement could have been our opportunity to carve out something unique in our trade relations with not just the United States but other countries around the world. As the deal stands it is unbalanced, unfair and completely unacceptable. We should not pay this price for a measly economic gain and a pat on the head from our friends in the United States. In many respects the government have bowed to the pressure of US interests. We are taking the scraps from the table just so that they can say we have got a deal.

The Democrats do not want to be seen as being antibusiness or antitrade. We do not just talk about these things for the sake of talking. It is a question of standing up for what you believe in, because this is the most significant issue that the Senate has dealt with for a long time. Quite frankly, we do not want to stand by and watch this country's future being sold at bargain basement prices. It is too important. In the years to come, when the reviews are conducted and we look back and realise that prices of medicines in this country probably have changed—as have other things we were told were not going to change—I wonder whether anyone will remember the debate we had. It is not just a question of looking to the future; it is also a question of drawing a line in the sand now. I would have liked to have thought that the opposition would not cave in. They gave us 42 good reasons why the agreement should not have been supported, yet they still went ahead and supported it. I want it on the record that the Australian Democrats oppose the free trade agreement, not because we are antitrade but because we believe in fair trade—and this free trade agreement is far from it.