9 March 2004

The detail of the FTA is teeming with devils

My assessment on the basis of the Howard Government's summary of the FTA four weeks ago was that this was a worthwhile agreement for Australia. My initial assessment of the actual agreement suggests it offers slightly less than was expected and costs us more.

There are gains, particularly for manufacturers and for lamb and wool producers. However, we pay for these, especially in giving up much of our ability to regulate our media.

In addition, these bilateral agreements are bought at the price of our credibility in the World Trade Organisation. This is a real price because the biggest potential gains, by far, are in that forum.

The Cairns Group of agricultural exporters pushes for freer agricultural trade in the WTO. In a speech last Monday Trade Minister Mark Vaile said: 'Australia is working hard to re-energise the (WTO) round. I have just returned from a Cairns Group meeting... We sent a strong message to the US, the EU and Japan on the need for them to show leadership as the major subsidisers of agriculture.'

How 'strong' can our message be when we have agreed to an FTA that leaves America's grossly unfair agricultural practices in place? Moral authority is a source of power. Right now, Australia railing against agricultural protectionism is about as credible as the National Rugby League railing against the abuse of women.

One has to suspect that John Howard entered these FTA negotiations with the US expecting special treatment. But the fine print reveals there are no mates' rates in this deal, none at all.

One also has to suspect that the parliamentary claims that trade experts advised the government to abandon the FTA may well be true. But the Man of Steel badly needs two vast and trunkless legs of stone to call his own.

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