Howard, Vaile in all-out push
for "free trade" agreement with US
by Bob Briton The Howard Government is redoubling its efforts to get an Australia US Free Trade Agreement (FTA) signed, sealed and delivered as quickly as possible. Negotiations between the two governments resumed last week with Trade Minister Mark Vaile doing his best to promote a pact during his lengthy US visit. The PM and his Cabinet hope to present a secretly negotiated deal as a fait accompli to parliament and use it to steamroller the necessary legislation through both Houses. The numerous eloquent contributions to the debate over local content at the Australian Film Industry (AFI) awards landed heavy blows against the government's sell-out position. The Prime Minister responded using ambiguous language. He said that Australia would not undo longstanding policies such as the local rules on existing media. He would, however, be prepared to be "fairly flexible" about new media forms. In other words, local content rules may lapse when digital TV services take over. Howard knows there is little support for the abolition of media ownership rules, the import of genetically modified food without labelling, or for water privatisation, just to take a few examples of likely outcomes. The Government feels vulnerable over the weakness of its commitment to the highly popular Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme - - a target of the powerful US pharmaceuticals industry. Ron Pollack, Executive Director of Families USA; a pro-regulation lobby group in the US, told the ABC that we should hold on to our wallets if the PBS is watered down as a result of negotiations. "This is going to be a slippery slope and if the drug industry gets some concessions this year, they'll come back next year for the next set of concessions." Howard chooses his words carefully. "I want to make it clear that we are not going to trade that wonderful facility away in the free-trade negotiations, we're not. The PBS in its essential character is just not on the list and is not up for grabs or not up for negotiation." [Emphasis added] The PM makes much of the need to offer concessions in return for permission for Australian agricultural produce to compete on US markets. We should take note of what happens when smaller nations negotiate "free trade" agreements with what the Howard Government delights in calling the biggest and most dynamic economy in the world. Chile signed an FTA with the US that takes effect in January. To get the US to set aside 15 barriers to trade, Chile had to drop 52. Among other impacts, cheap US wheat is set to wipe out local production. Chilean Christian Democrat Senator Jorge Lavandero now protests, "this is not free trade, this is a political imposition. We are practically giving up our sovereignty." The sacrifices made in the name of agriculture could prove worthless. NSW Greens Senator Kerry Nettle pointed out the flaw in the government's line to The Guardian in a recent interview: "Travelling in rural communities I've heard farmers say that what stops them being able to export their produce into the US are the agricultural subsidies that the US Government pays to its farmers. Agricultural subsidies cannot be on the table in a bilateral trade negotiation. They can only be negotiated on in multi-lateral negotiations." The US is in no mood for such multi-lateral talks and has already rejected requests for an end to the subsidies in its negotiations for an FTA with Brazil. This did not stop the US demanding changes affecting investment, intellectual property rights, government procurement guidelines and other aspects of Brazil's independence. The movement opposed to the changes being floated to local media content, the PBS, our quarantine regulations and a host of other vital safeguards must keep up their resistance to the FTA threat to our national sovereignty. We must not let the government trade significant gains made by the people over decades in a few weeks of this final round of "free trade" negotiations. Write now to PM Howard, Mark Vaile and your Senators calling for a halt to negotiations and the public release of Australia's and the US's negotiating stances.