EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Free Trade Agreement's tilted playing field
, July 3, 2004
At the time of writing, legislation to the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) was before the Senate, which is expected to vote on it before the Senate rises for the winter recess.
Substantial new criticism of the terms of the agreement have come from Professor Linda Weiss from Sydney University's Economics Department and Dr Elizabeth Thurbon, from the University of New South Wales.
(Professor Weiss has achieved an international reputation for her work in the comparative and international politics of economic development. The areas of her research and teaching are in globalisation and governance, comparative capitalism, and developmental states in East Asia.)
In their joint submission to the Senate inquiry, the academics highlighted new concerns about the politicisation of Australia's quarantine, the erosion of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), and national losses arising from radical government procurement changes.
These concerns arose from a detailed examination of the text of the Agreement itself, official statements by US and Australian Trade Representatives, US and Australian Government policy documents and reports, other submissions to the Select Senate Committee on the FTA, and other material.US trade officials
Despite repeated suggestions by Australia's Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, that Australia's quarantine system will be maintained intact after the Free Trade Agreement is ratified, they say, "The inclusion of US Trade Representatives in Australia's quarantine decision-making processes will now give foreign trade officials the power to intervene in policies of utmost national importance for economic security."
This will be done through the inclusion of American trade
representatives on the new Australia-US Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Matters, which is supposed to deal with the scientific
basis of quarantine decisions.
Using evidence from the US Government and US agricultural organisations, they show that Australia will be forced to compromise its scientifically based quarantine decisions as a result of US trade pressure.
Depending on the sector involved, this will irreparably damage Australia's status as a disease-free agricultural exporter - our key competitive advantage, and increase the use of toxic pesticides to decontaminate infested US imports, posing a health risk to Australians.
They say that statements by US government officials reveal the explicit intention
to use the bodies established under the FTA to pursue the relaxation and elimination of Australia's quarantine standards in a range of highly sensitive areas.
"A February 8 US Trade Representative press release revealed the US Government's belief that under the deal, 'Food inspection procedures that have posed barriers in the past will be addressed, benefiting sectors such as pork, citrus, apples and stone fruit'.
"The inclusion of pork in this statement is particularly concerning in light of Biosecurity Australia's recent decision to allow pork imports from the US, even though the CSIRO recommended otherwise.
"The CSIRO report concluded that changes to quarantine protocols proposed by Biosecurity Australia would see a 94 to 99 per cent likelihood of an outbreak of the deadly post-weaning multi-systemic wasting syndrome in the next 10 years. Since its appearance in Europe only a few years ago, this disease has killed eight million pigs, at a cost of $1.5 billion. It has no vaccination or cure; only Australia, Finland and Belgium are free from it."
They quote US farm organisations which have already placed a dollar figure on the gains they expect to make from the removal of Australian quarantine standards.Export aims
The American Farm Bureau Federation said explicitly that "United States exports of pork and poultry currently ... are subject to sanitary and phytosanitary regulations that keep the trade volume minimal, With progress in sanitary and phytosanitary talks and improved market access, United States exports of pork could reach $50 million, with poultry exports reaching $25 million."
The US Farm Bureau Federation added, "With the elimination of tariffs and sanitary/phytosanitary restrictions on fresh and processed vegetables, fruits and nuts, United States exports of $80 million over the 1999-2001 period could increase by 50 per cent or $40 million."
They also found that Australia's existing quarantine standards had been compromised by US trade pressure, as seen in "the penetration of trade discourse - non-science issues - into Biosecurity Australia's risk-assessment processes, and the reopening of existing quarantine protocols in the absence of changed circumstances or new scientific findings," specifically, in relation to bananas, grapes, pineapples, citrus fruits and meat imports.
If these concerns are not satisfactorily resolved, it cannot be in Australia's national interest to sign the Free Trade Agreement.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council