The Guardian December 6, 2000


Town revolts over "free trade" blight

by Peter Mac

The entire population of the Victorian town of Shepparton, centre of the 
Goulburn Valley's apple and pear industry, went on strike last week as the 
Federal Government was considering proposals to permit the import of fruit 
potentially affected by the dreaded "fire blight" disease.

The government's quarantine organisation, Biosecurity Australia, recently 
approved the import of apples from New Zealand, despite the presence in 
that country of fire blight.

This disease, which has been active there since 1919, has badly affected 
apple production and has totally wiped out the NZ pear-growing industry. 
Australia is one of the few countries which is still free of the disease.

The people of Shepparton therefore shut up shop last Wednesday and marched 
together in thousands to a rally against the Government's decision to 
consider permitting the import of the New Zealand fruit.

State Secretary of the Australian Workers' Union, Bill Shorten, said that 
despite having attended hundreds of rallies and strike actions he had never 
seen an entire town mobilised in such a way.

Local Liberal MP Sharman Stone stated that importation could effectively 
destroy the current way of life in the Goulburn Valley.

Mr Shorten said that if the Government decided to accept the importation of 
the fruit, the union would help to organise a community blockade of ports 
where it was to be landed.

Both Australia and New Zealand are members of the World Trade Organisation 
(WTO).

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry has explained that 
under the WTO rules Australia is obliged to consider accepting imports from 
any member country, even when doing so would endanger an entire industry.

The Federal Government was recently defeated over a similar issue, when the 
Tasmanian Government refused to accept the import of potentially-diseased 
live salmon from Canada, another WTO member.

The Shepparton dispute has revealed the Howard Government's willingness to 
accept the potentially damaging consequences of "free trade" under WTO 
rules.

The Government's actions also give a good indication of what lay in store 
for the Australian people if the OECD's Multilateral Agreement on 
Investment (MAI) had been signed last year.

The MAI was defeated after widespread international protests. However, the 
Prime Minister, Mr Howard, recently expressed a desire to see the agreement 
revived.

While the MAI has been officially abandoned, a similar agreement is still 
being pushed by the USA at the WTO and many of its features imposed on 
poorer countries by the International Monetary Fund.

Such an agreement would allow companies to sue the Federal Government (no 
matter which party was in power) in international courts if they dared to 
restrict imports or other initiatives by the companies, for example, on the 
grounds of a danger to the environment.

This would effectively end sovereign control by the government over matters 
such as investment and trade.

So if the import of fruit under WTO rules is potentially fatal for life in 
the Goulburn Valley and other fruit growing areas, imagine what life would 
be like for the whole of Australia under a multilateral agreement on 
investment.

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