US Australia Free Trade Agreement

Will the AUSFTA be in Australia's national interest?

I am one of the millions of Australians who have not yet managed to read the 1,100 pages of the document known as the proposed free trade agreement.

Most Australians never will get the opportunity to read it, so I guess it is incumbent on us as parliamentary representatives to speak up on their behalf. In my case, I want to raise some concerns on behalf of my constituents, as we and they try to understand the impact that a deal negotiated on the other side of the Atlantic will have on the daily lives of ordinary Australians—in particular those living in my constituency.

The government promotes the free trade agreement as the best thing to happen to Australia since sliced bread. From the Prime Minister down, government ministers urge that we all support this deal unequivocally, the suggestion being that if the Labor opposition do not pass this free trade agreement we will in some way be unpatriotic or, as Minister Downer quite foolishly asserted last week, anti-American.

The role of the opposition in this parliament is to apply maximum scrutiny. Precisely because the free trade agreement is a significant event, in our national interest we cannot take the proposals on good faith alone. To do so would be to abrogate our responsibility and let the Australian people down. The government may not be happy with this, but we live in a democracy and that is how things work in a democracy. I can understand that the government is eager for Labor to pass its free trade agreement but, while I agree that we are presented with an important opportunity, I am also mindful that this agreement was forged in an election year for both the Howard government and the Bush administration. As a result, we have every reason to be concerned about the politics surrounding the fine print.

The Prime Minister wants his 15 minutes of fame, and good luck to him. But he will have to wait for the outcome of the Senate inquiry, because only through an inquiry can we get the answers to the many questions that are now emerging around the free trade agreement and what it means for Australia's agriculture, for its manufacturing sector, for pharmaceutical benefits, for the car industry, for the film industry and so on—the list goes on. The ABS 2001 census notes that my electorate of Calwell has 15,000 people working in textile, footwear and clothing factories, as well as in car, plastics and chemical manufacturing. These industries will rely heavily on a free trade agreement that is free and fair, one that allows them to continue to operate competitively so that they can continue to be successful and provide jobs for the thousands of workers and their families who live in Calwell. Workers, trade unions and economic analysts are concerned, for example, that the $2 billion per year increase in imports of US manufactured goods could lead to Australian job losses. Although in my electorate the Ford motor company has cautiously welcomed the agreement, there is concern about Australian markets being swamped by US cars. I am sure my Ford factory workers want to know what that may mean for their jobs and their futures.

What does the free trade agreement mean for Lanes Biscuits in Coolaroo, whose competitive exports may be penalised as a result of the proposed increase in sugar surcharges? What does the free trade agreement mean for Yakka, a 70-year-old icon based in Broadmeadows, already under pressure from reduced tariffs? It and other clothing and footwear companies may have to compete with a flood of American imports on an unequal footing, given that the detail of the agreement shows that the US has won special rules on textiles, making it harder for local TCF exporters to enter the US market.

What do we make of the Prime Minister stating that tariffs will be phased out, while the US trade representative says they will go `immediately'? Whom are we to believe or trust on this vital issue? I can tell you that my constituents expect their government to protect their interests and to protect their jobs. They expect a government to act in the national interest, ensuring that Australian industries are protected against unfairness and unlevel playing fields.

We do recognise the enormous economic potential for Australia that could come from linking into the world's biggest economy, and we appreciate our relationship with the US. But we should be mindful that it is not a special relationship. The Prime Minister might see it as such, but we cannot define our national interest in the narrow context of the Prime Minister's friendship with President Bush. Each responsible national leader realises that their nation's interests must be first and foremost. To the United States, the Australian free trade agreement is but one of many FTAs it will negotiate. The US negotiates overwhelmingly and primarily in its interest, and so it should. Australia must do the same. Certainly the Labor opposition will insist on nothing less than this. To grab a deal simply for the sake of having one is a `something is better then nothing' approach which may have negative consequences down the track after all the dust has settled.