Trade Issues On Agenda For Howard’s American Visit

Prime Minister John HowardThe Prime Minister, John Howard, has left Australia for a week-long trip to the United States.

The main purpose of the visit is to attend a meeting of the International Democratic Union, an organisation of centre-right political parties (see earlier report). He will also address a Joint Session of the US Congress, fulfilling a commitment derailed by the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Trade issues will be high on the agenda, particularly since the American imposition of steel tariffs earlier this year. Speaking today, Howard drew a distinction between trade and defence issues: “I’ve always drawn a distinction between defence and trade issues. It’s never been the policy of the Australian Government, I think it’s fair to say of either persuasion, to link those two things. It’s not in Australia’s interest to do so. We are in the fight against terrorism because it’s in Australia’s interests to be in that fight. And the two should not be linked. I’ve never sought to do that and I don’t believe the administration has ever sought to do that. Clearly we have differences on trade, clearly we are unhappy with the farm bill. Clearly we were unhappy with the imposition of steel tariffs, in relation to that we were able to win an arrangement that I don’t think has ever been granted in the last 20 or so years to an Australian Government, an Australian industry in similar circumstances.”

This is the text of a press conference given by John Howard, prior to his departure for the United States:

PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen I’ll be departing shortly for the United States where I will be in Washington for about five days and I’ll be returning to Australia next Saturday morning. It will be an opportunity to talk to the administration at the highest levels to respond to an invitation that brings very great honour to Australia and that is to address a joint sitting of Congress. I’ll also attend a meeting of the International Democratic Union which brings together centre-rights parties from around the world. In my discussions with the administration I’ll have the opportunity of course of talking about the war against terrorism in which Australia is fighting side by side with the United States and it’s been doing so from the very beginning. There’ll also be an opportunity to talk about other challenges to security around the world, the Middle East, the tension between India and Pakistan and of course there’ll also be discussion of economic and trade issues. Everybody understands that until the Congress gives trade promotion authority to the administration, American hands are tied in relation to the negotiation of further free trade agreements, either with Australia or other countries.

Overall the visit is a great opportunity for me on behalf of the Australian Government to reaffirm for the Australian people the centrality of the American alliance, how highly we prize and value that alliance and also of course to have the opportunity of talking very directly at the highest level to people in the administration. Any questions?

JOURNALIST:

Do they take it for granted on trade though given what’s happening in terms of agricultural subsidies at the moment again given it’s a congressional year? Do they take advantage of our loyalty on defence issues to continue to block us from their markets?

PRIME MINISTER:

I’ve always drawn a distinction between defence and trade issues. It’s never been the policy of the Australian Government, I think it’s fair to say of either persuasion, to link those two things. It’s not in Australia’s interest to do so. We are in the fight against terrorism because it’s in Australia’s interests to be in that fight. And the two should not be linked. I’ve never sought to do that and I don’t believe the administration has ever sought to do that. Clearly we have differences on trade, clearly we are unhappy with the farm bill. Clearly we were unhappy with the imposition of steel tariffs, in relation to that we were able to win an arrangement that I don’t think has ever been granted in the last 20 or so years to an Australian Government, an Australian industry in similar circumstances.

JOURNALIST:

Given that win, are we likely to get an amalgamated concession on trade?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I don’t think people should have any expectations about major concessions coming out of this visit because, for the reason I stated earlier, we aren’t able to sit down and talk to the Americans seriously about free trade arrangements and understandings until the administration is given trade promotion authority. But I will have the opportunity of putting very strongly Australian concerns and objections to the farm bill, there should be no doubt that we are very unhappy with that farm bill because it does work against the Australian national interest and the character of a close friendship and a close alliance is that where there are differences they should be plainly exposed and talked about and not walked away from.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, are you confident that you’ll get a meeting, a private meeting with George Bush?

PRIME MINISTER:

I have no doubt that I’ll have access at the highest levels in an appropriate way.

JOURNALIST:

How far would you push the access for Australian farmers to American market, would we take them to the World Trade Organisation?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we will look after our interests in accordance with the mechanisms that are available to us. But the purpose of exploring a free trade agreement after we have got trade promotion authority is of course to see if there can’t be ground over the longer term to further improve the relationship at a trade level between the two countries.

JOURNALIST:

Are you confident the Senate will support the new immigration zones?

PRIME MINISTER:

No I’m not confident the Senate will do so and let me say this, the Labor Party shillyshallying on this issue shows that Labor is weak on border protection. There’s no difference between what we are now proposing and what Labor supported last year in relation to Christmas and Cocos Islands. And if the Senate, courtesy of the Labor Party, blocks this new proposal it will send a message to the people smugglers that Australia is going soft on border protection. Let that be understood by the Australian Labor Party, we have good reason for wanting to excise these further islands and Labor shillyshallying and ducking and shoving shows that it is weak on border protection, very weak indeed.

JOURNALIST:

Is Crean being pushed around by other elements of his party do you believe?

PRIME MINISTER:

I just don’t know, but I mean there’s a very simple choice, Labor either supports the national interest on border protection or joins in sending a message to the people smugglers, a message to the people smugglers that we are starting to go soft. I don’t think that is a message the Australian people want sent, it’s not a message I want sent. And I say to the Labor Party, if you block this proposal you will be joining in sending a message to the people smugglers that this country is starting to go soft.

JOURNALIST:

How strong is your evidence that there are more boatloads on the way to Australia if you don’t make the case (inaudible) Labor Party should support this further strengthening of the migration zone?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well what Mr Ruddock indicated yesterday is that we don’t believe something is about to happen, we have evidence that there could be some further attempts and that is why we wish to bring about these further excisions from the migration zone. And I can’t for the life of me understand why if the Labor Party supported the excision of Christmas Island and Cocos Island, why it won’t agree to these new measures because they’re the same, the principle is exactly the same, there is no difference. The only difference is that the Labor Party appears to be going weak on border protection, which we always suspected would happen once the election was conducted.

JOURNALIST:

Do you believe Prime Minister that if the Labor Party in the Senate failed to pass that in fact it’s an encouragement to the people smugglers?

PRIME MINISTER:

I believe it is because up until now we have presented a united solid determined front and it has worked and it will be the first faltering in that united determined front that we have presented. And it will not be the national interest and the Labor Party has a very simple choice, it either stands up for strong border protection and stands shoulder to shoulder with the Government on that issue, or it joins in sending a message that we are starting to go soft on the issue.

JOURNALIST:

Wouldn’t the people smugglers just keep coming to the mainland though given these islands…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well they haven’t over the last six or seven months have they?

JOURNALIST:

Is that due though that it’s been cyclone season though Prime Minister?

PRIME MINISTER:

Oh come on now, that’s ridiculous, you don’t have a wet season that long. You compare the last six months with the previous period a year earlier and a year earlier than that. The weather patterns are not all that different. Look there’s no doubt that what we have done over the last six months has sent a strong united clear unfaltering message and it’s been very successful. I’m not saying the problems been solved, but it has been very successful by any measure beyond the expectations of all of the Government’s critics and in a sense beyond some of our more optimistic expectations. Now we have some, there is some evidence that there may be some attempts in the near future and that is why we’re taking these precautionary measures and I think it’s a very simple choice for the Labor Party, they are either for strong border protection or they are not.

JOURNALIST:

Can you expand on what information the Government has received about these further boatloads, what information there is?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we have received information from intelligence sources and it is not normal, as you know, to go into that.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, are you confident that the military has been continuing (inaudible) to keep up the level of border protection (inaudible).

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I am confident of that. I think they’ve demonstrated enormous capacity over the past few months, I think what the Royal Australian Navy did late last year deserves the thanks of all the Australian people. I think some of the criticism and nitpicking they were subjected to and some of the allegations that were made about what occurred were unfair and ought to have been deeply resented by the men and women of the Royal Australian Navy. But I think they’ve done a first class job and on the information currently in front of me I have no reason to believe they don’t have the wherewithal.

Thank you.

Print Friendly