Bush visit signals rush to Free Trade Agreement
by Bob Briton The corporate media were buzzing last week with columnists and commentators on the purpose of US President George W Bush's 21- hour visit to Australia. Most said that it was to give the Australian Government the customary rub on the tummy for getting involved in another US military adventure. The desire of George "Dubbya" to hurry along the conclusion of an Australia US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) came a close second. Whatever the reason, the US President did say that he would like to see such an agreement in place by the end of December. Not surprisingly, "our" leaders agree with him. In contrast to the cautious approach to a free trade agreement with China, where Foreign Minister Alexander Downer speaks of a one-or even two-year period for investigation, the AUSFTA is presented as something akin to a law of nature. As usual, the Federal Government is speaking on behalf of a minute segment of the population and corporate interests. The AUSFTA threatens the sovereignty of the Australian Government over pharmaceuticals, quarantine regulations, genetically engineered products, health care, education, consumer protection and even our culture and identity. Despite repeated assurances from the Federal Government that nothing would change, the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme (PBS) and other important public services are threatened. Powerful interests on the other side of the Pacific are pushing for "reforms". The US group representing major drug companies, PhRMA, claims that its members do not receive a sufficiently high price for the drugs they sell to the Australian Government. They want bigger profits. These companies — the most profitable in the USA — are used to getting their way and an AUSFTA would open the door wider to their influence in Australia. US targets quarantine laws The US claims Australia's quarantine laws are a "barrier to trade" and under an FTA would use a "free trade" pretext to breech our quarantine protection. The lead negotiator for the US Government, Bob Zoellick, has indicated that the signing of the AUSFTA is conditional on a "relaxation" of Australia's quarantine laws. The US is host to many diseases, viruses and pests not known in Australia. The Productivity Commission has forecast that if quarantine laws were relaxed, a disease outbreak in the livestock sector could cost $13 billion in lost GDP and at least 30,000 jobs. Australia currently has disease-free status in many of its agricultural sectors. According to surveys, over 70 percent of Australians would not buy genetically engineered (GE) food if they had the choice. But US agribusiness will stop at nothing to push GE products onto markets and would use a FTA to over-rule Australian labelling laws and to stop States introducing GE moratoriums and GE-free zones. The list of services set to be upended by an AUSFTA is extensive. Trade Minister Mark Vaile gave reassurances that the agreement would not impair the government's ability to "deliver fundamental objectives in health care, education, consumer protection and supporting Australian culture and identity". But the experience of the Canadians and Mexicans — now bound to the US through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — is that US companies have used newly created opportun-ities to muscle into the provision of public services. They would do the same to Australia. In fact, NAFTA provides many insights into what "free trade" agreements with the US are about. The Economic Policy Institute in the US estimates that 765,000 US manufacturing jobs have been wiped out since 1993. "The fact is," says Jim English Secretary-Treasurer of the United Steelworkers of America, "NAFTA has been a disaster for workers on both sides of the border. It has reduced wages by 22 percent for Mexican workers and at the same time it has cut by more than half the number of successful organising campaigns in this country when employers threaten workers with moving their plants out of the country." This is what these agreements are designed to do. They give greater freedom for transnational corporations to do as they please to maximize profits. They are yet another means by which to limit the ability of workers to defend themselves and the services they require. Bush and Howard are long standing members of the "coalition of the willing" in that global struggle.