The Guardian October 29, 2003


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.

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