How to kill a country


The most astonishing feature of the recent federal election “ apart from the government’s resounding re-endorsement “ was the complete absence of any reference to the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement. Not even a mention of the deal. Yet if it comes into force on 1 January next year, it will change forever the kind of country that we live in. How could something so important be such a non-issue?

One explanation is that Labor gave up all chance of debating the deal when it signed up for the agreement, subject to the ‘Latham amendments’ passed in August “ and the Howard government did not want to stir up further debate during the campaign. This in itself is remarkable: if Howard was so proud of his ‘once in a lifetime achievement’ then it should surely have been something to mention “ if not boast about “ during an election campaign.

The truth is that the deal is so damaging (for Australia) that Howard wanted it well and truly wrapped up and out of the public gaze before the election. And this is exactly what Latham (albeit with his amendments) gave Howard. It is as if the two leaders had agreed to the unspoken injunction: ‘Don’t mention the FTA’.

We have been investigating how bad this agreement really is, and have come to the conclusion that it will dismantle the institutional arrangements essential to Australia’s economic security and future prosperity. We have found compelling evidence that the FTA sacrifices Australia’s institutions, industry, and interests, in favour of those of a foreign power, in four key areas.

First, in agriculture, our system for safeguarding the competitive health of our agricultural export industries against exotic pests and diseases “ and their international reputation for being clean and green “ is to be sacrificed under the FTA chapter on sanitary and phytosanitary measures. We effectively subordinate our rights as a full member of the WTO to protect our rigorous quarantine standards, and instead agree to let American trade representatives onto our quarantine committees “ knowing full well that they misrepresent our science-based quarantine protections as ‘hidden trade barriers’. We have witnessed a full dress rehearsal for the FTA in operation during the last eighteen months as Biosecurity Australia has steadily abandoned all semblance of neutrality and drastically lowered Australia’s quarantine standards. This prioritisation of trade relations with the US over and against Australia’s economic security proceeded so far that loud alarm bells were raised by our apple, pear, banana and pork producers, Senate inquiries expressed grave reservations, and the CEO of Biosecurity was forced to resign. The damaging changes under the FTA however remain.

Next, in government purchasing, our system for buying goods and services from the private sector for use by government – which has been used by all countries, notably the US, as a means of promoting local industries – is to be completely emasculated. In place of using Australian tax dollars to buy Australian goods, and boost local nascent industries such as software, we agree to abandon all such programs “ while the Americans keep their Buy American programs in place. Moreover, during the life of the FTA negotiations, the Howard government quietly set aside ‘buy Australian’ programs in favour of ‘buy American’ “ even before the deal was signed. This provides another dress rehearsal of what life under the FTA will be like.

Third, in pharmaceuticals, our system of bulk purchasing of medicines and their delivery to Australian citizens at lower than market prices, through the world-class Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, is under threat by the FTA. The deal gives American drug companies – the most bloated and profitable in the world – the chance to get more of their products onto the PBS list (by getting new review procedures in place to contest decisions), to raise prices of these drugs, and thus to put the PBS, and ultimately the resource-constrained health system, under more budgetary pressure.

Finally, in intellectual property rights, our legal framework for regulating copyright, trademarks and patents is to be completely over-ridden by the US system. Among other things, this will dramatically increase the flow of Australian dollars in royalty payments to US corporations, adding to our massive $1.5bn deficit in intellectual property.

No wonder that Howard didn’t want the deal discussed during the election campaign. This dismantling of our institutions is by far the most damaging consequence of the FTA for the nation and for Australian industry, and one that has been scarcely touched on by the media. By contrast, most Australians will be familiar with the deal’s failure to open US markets to our most competitive products “ offering only paltry access for our beef, dairy, wine and other products, while completely excluding sugar and our world-class seacraft. This wasn’t a ‘free trade’ deal so much as Australia saying ‘come and take anything you want, and turn our laws into your laws’ “ just give us decent access for beef and dairy. And the Americans were too canny to agree even to that.

In the wake of the election rout, Australia needs an issue around which to rally. The FTA could be just that issue. It is so outrageous; it is such a harsh capitulation by one country to another; and it has been sold in such a deceitful fashion. The pollies need to be told loudly and clearly that ‘Here is an issue worth fighting for “ our country’s future’. We deserve better than to be an appendage state of the US, which is what we will surely become if the FTA is allowed to proceed.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.