6 August 2004

No, Prime Minister, you can't see into the future

Sir Humphrey: 'Alas, there are grave problems about circulating papers before they are written.'

John Howard's government, it appears, can do what Jim Hacker's could not. It can not only circulate materials not yet written, but have them legally analysed and rejected as well.

The only conclusion one can draw, following yesterday's parliamentary debate about the threat presented to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme by the trade deal with the US, is that the departments of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Foreign Affairs, Health, Industry and Attorney-General employ large numbers of people who are both lawyers and clairvoyants.

I confess I was not aware of this elite corps of legal parapsychologists until question three in the House of Reps yesterday.

That was when, with considerable flourish, Howard produced what were purported to be legal opinions from all those departments, all concluding there was no way, none at all, absolutely for sure, that the Opposition's proposed amendment to protect the scheme from being rorted by big drug companies would work.

What makes his gambit extraordinary is that no one outside the Labor Party has seen exactly what Labor is proposing.

To suggest that any lawyer could give a firm view on the basis of no document whatsoever is, you would have to say, to make a heroic assumption. All the more so because the lawyers were apparently working off a brief similar to that from which the various government members were, which misrepresented even the limited information the Opposition has provided.

The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, pushed the issue furthest, claiming that Labor's plan was that 'all patent claim applications [not just those on pharmaceuticals] that are rejected get fined'.

This week's been good fun all round for everyone except perhaps the prime minister. Sadly, ever-greening is not the main problem with the preferential trade agreement and Labor's amendment will not make it into a good deal. The agreement privileges the intellectual property sector where the US has an advantage and does nothing very much at all in the agricultural sector where Australia has the advantage. US agricultural subsidies are untouched. Even after Labor's local content amendment the PTA drives a truck through our efforts at cultural sovereignty.

Canada managed to escape cultural restrictions. Why did the Howard government sign such a bad deal?

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