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Our Farmers Have Been Dudded: Latham

February 09, 2004

The Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham, and the Shadow Minister for Trade, Senator Stephen Conroy, held a doorstop interview today, following the announcement of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States.


This is the transcript of the doorstop interview held by Mark Latham and Stephen Conroy.

LATHAM:

Well, thanks for coming along. Can I just say that the Labor Party is very, very disappointed with the trade agreement that's been signed with the United States overnight.

Based on what we know at this stage, this deal doesn't appear to be in Australia's national interests. Quite frankly, our farmers have been dudded.

Our farmers had their expectations raised about access to agricultural markets in the United States, and we now find out that there's no improved access for our sugarcane growers, which is exceptionally disappointing. It's going to take eighteen years to have some decent access in beef, which is way too long. And while there'll be some improvements in dairy, they are only partial at best.

So we believe that farmers have been let down. The farm sector in this country has been let down. Expectations were raised. I mean, the primary reason you have trade negotiations with a country like the United States is to get decent access for our agricultural sector. And the fact that our farmers have been dudded in this way is exceptionally disappointing indeed.

There are other aspects of the agreement, and the statements today, that cause concern from our perspective. The first of those is in relation to the PBS. We've always said that if the PBS is to be weakened, we wouldn't be supporting the agreement. And I note in the American statement that's been issues that they've highlighted the establishment of an independent process to review determinations for product listings that they say will enhance transparency and accountability in the operation of the PBS.

This may well be a mechanism that limits the capacity of the Australian government to list particular items on the PBS and would cause price rises. So that is a major concern as we look through the statements issues already, and as we go further into the detail of the five hundred page agreement.

Another area of concern is that the … again, in the American statement, they say in the area of broadcasting and audio visual services, the FTA contains important and unprecedented provisions to improve market access US films and television programs over a variety of media, including cable, satellite and the Internet.

Well, again, if that's true, it appears to be a weakening of local content rules in this country, again, something we said that if this is what the agreement was about it wouldn't have the support of the Australian Labor Party.

So, based on what we know at this stage, this deal doesn't appear to be in Australia's national interests. If we were asked to vote on it today, or in the parliament tomorrow, we would be opposing it. But, at the same time, Labor is committed to a Senate committee process where we can wade through the five hundred pages of detail, look at all the different issues that are raised, and, most importantly in terms of process, give the Australian people their say about what's called the FTA.

In fact, this is not a free trade agreement; it's not a free trade agreement at all. It's a partial trade agreement that, from our assessment this morning, is not in Australia's interests and it's now incumbent upon the government to prove otherwise through the Senate committee process.

REPORTER:

Is this …

LATHAM:

I'll just ask Stephen to say a bit more.

STEPHEN CONROY – FEDERAL SHADOW MINISTER FOR TRADE:

Yeah. Well, the Senate select committee process, we believe, will be supported, and that we'll be moving later this week to establish that Senate committee process, and we'll see that go around Australia, take submissions from all sectors, from all the groups that have got an interest in this, and we see that as a very portant … important part of the process.

So, we're very keen for this Senate select committee to have teeth, to get to the bottom of some of these contradictory statements.

Mark Vaile says one thing, how great it is in one area, and Zoellick says how great it is in the same area. They both can't be right. So, we want to get to a bo… to the bottom of a number of these issues through the Senate select committee process.

REPORTER:

Mr Latham, was America (indistinct) with Australia with this deal?

LATHAM:

No, America sat across the trade table and nutted out an agreement with the Australian government, and, unfortunately, our government hasn't stood up strongly enough for the interests of our farmers, in particular.

I mean, there is no economic or trade reason why our sugarcane growers should be locked out of American markets. There's only one reason and that's the politics of Florida. Now, that's not sufficient, and the Australian government should have been standing up for the best interests of our farm sector and, at no stage, rolling over and defying the best interests of farmers in this country.

REPORTER:

(Indistinct) think it acceptable that foreign policy rather than trade policy.

REPORTER:

But if America is such a great friend of Australia, why are they doing this to us?

LATHAM:

Sorry?

REPORTER:

Is this an example of foreign policy rather than trade policy?

LATHAM:

Well, I think it's an example of political policy in the state of Florida, there's no doubt about that. But it's not a free trade agreement; it's a partial trade agreement. It has a number of serious deficiencies, and they're the things that we'll be looking at in greater detail at the Senate committee process.

REPORTER:

If Australia's such a good friend to America, why would they give us such a dud deal?

LATHAM:

Well, I think the Australian government hasn't stood up effectively for Australia's interests. And they should have been saying, look, this is not about the politics of Florida, it's about the best interests of Australian sugarcane growers and the natural justice in a free trade agreement of having access to markets. Let's have access to markets rather than political considerations getting in the way of fair play.

REPORTER:

Do you think it could have been a different outcome if John Howard had got more involved, used his special relationship with George Bush in the final stages of this?

LATHAM:

I think there would have been a better outcome if the Australian government had stood up for the best interests of Australian farmers, and said that this agreement has got to be about fair access into American agricultural markets.

And eighteen years in beef in fast changing economies and markets is an eternity; it's not good enough. No sugar access is appalling, and the dairy stuff is limited indeed. So, I'm not going into the ins and outs of who called whom, but the fair comment is that the Australian government hasn't stood up effectively for our farm sector, and that is just hugely disappointing.

REPORTER:

(Indistinct) benefits for manufacturing exports outweigh what's happened to the sugar sector, which is really just the status quo.

LATHAM:

Well, that's not clear. Our early assessment that those impacts in services and manufacturing are mixed. And that's one of the reasons why we'll have a Senate committee to go through that in detail and have a look at it. But I just want to make this point, it's never acceptable in terms of decency and proper procedure in this country to be selling out big sectors like agriculture in an agreement like this; you've really got to stand up for their best interests. And I'm sure the farmers are hugely disappointed by the outcome and – as we are in the Labor Party – and we want all these things thrashed out at the Senate committee.

REPORTER:

If your (indistinct) disapproval of the FTA main … retai… remains after the process in the Senate committee, are you going to block this free trader deal and can you block this free trade deal with the support of the minor party?

LATHAM:

Yes, and as best we can.

REPORTER:

Does the whole agreement go to parliament or just parts of it?

LATHAM:

The enabling legislation on tariff reductions and a range of other issues do have to come to parliament; there won't be a free trade bill. There'll be a whole range of bills that flow from it and we have the capacity with the minor parties to block it in the Senate.

But the other issue that shouldn't be forgotten here is Australia is the leader of the Cairns Group; the Cairns Group is about free trade in agriculture. And how can we credibly go to the Cairns Group members, go into those negotiations with Europe and the US in the future and argue for free trade and agriculture when we prepared to cop much, much less. So this is very damaging to Australia's long-term position in the world trade debate.

REPORTER:

Do you have consent about the car industry – specifically Toyota and Mitsubishi because of their concerns - pre the deal being si… agreed upon?

LATHAM:

Yes, they were voiced at our shadow ministry meeting this morning, and we have serious concerns there and we want those tested in the proper way of the Senate committee, where everyone will have a chance to have their say. And I think it's incumbent upon the government to prove that it's in the national interest, but we don't see that at this stage.

REPORTER:

What about the foreign investment rule change?

LATHAM:

Well, they're quite substantial; they're much more than were earlier indicated by the government and we want to get to the bottom of why we conceded so much on foreign investment review board. The Labor Party's got a very proud tradition of supporting foreign investment in this country, but these steps may have gone too far. So, again, this is why we need this Senate committee process to get to the bottom of what this means and what the impact is on Australian industry.

REPORTER:

Prime Minister says he didn't want to see the deal scuppered once that he realised we wouldn't get a concession on sugar; do you disagree with his assessment that overall it provides long-term benefits?

LATHAM:

Well, I think if it was shaping up as a bad deal, you needed to walk away from the table; that's what good national leadership's about in the national interest. We never wanted a fast deal, we wanted a good deal and the government should have stayed at the table as long as it took to get that outcome. And I'm sure sugar producers and beef producers and dairy producers around Australia today will agree fully with that assessment. I mean, this has been rushed; I mean, most trade deals take two years and have up to twelve sets of negotiations. This one's been done in just on twelve months with only six sets of negotiations. This has very much been rushed because of political imperatives in the US.

REPORTER:

But isn't …

REPORTER:

Well, then …

LATHAM:

I mean, the only … the other timetable consideration is curious indeed; it's been pushed out a couple of days past the Queensland election, so the timetabling of it is something that also needs to be examined.

REPORTER:

Do you think Australia deliberately delayed that?

LATHAM:

Well, it's a curious coincidence, at best, and if there's anything else that's been going on, obviously, it's something that will be looked at at the Senate committee as we talk and examine officials who've been involved. But - you can make your own judgment about the timing - but it's a funny old thing when the sugar producers cop it in the neck and it comes out the day after a state election in Queensland.

REPORTER:

It's suddenly a deal between governments and not parliaments; do you pledge Labor to unpicking it in government?

LATHAM:

Well, we have opportunities in the parliament to unpick the detail and make an assessment and if it's not in Australia's interest at the end of that process, we'll be voting against it in the way that Stephen has outlined. But it's also a parallel process in the United States that we need to be mindful of and they'll be running through their processes and producing information that will be relevant to the debate and considerations here.

Okay, thank you very much.

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