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John Howard's short-termism

President's perspective

When the history is written of this period of the Australian experience, I believe it will be seen as the climax of John Howard's opportunistic short-termism. It is clear in industry policy, where the government is not leading debate about long term, co-operative goals. The article on the Mitsubishi closure in Adelaide by John Spoehr, that we publish in the current Evatt Journal, draws attention to the challenges in the manufacturing sector. John Howard's increasingly close and uncritical identification with the master of short-term thinking, George W Bush, will be central to the federal election campaign. The blowing of the budget, the crisis in Iraq and the Middle East, and the proposed Free Trade Agreement with the United States are short-term fixes for long term problems.

The proposed US-Australia Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) has long term adverse implications for Australia. There is a need to have an extensive debate that informs people of the implications of the poor results, achieved by the Australian negotiating team. The Senate select committee on the AUSFTA is expected to bring down its interim report on 21st June. We know that those called 'the base' by Vice President Cheney, the large corporations, may have their agenda for the agreement. This month the Evatt Foundation attempts to enhance the wider Australian public debate.

We present the views of some of the experts that show how, for vital sectors of our economy, the deal is full of holes. Dr Patricia Ranald and Louise Southalan from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, for the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network, give an overview. Their analysis, "Ten Devils in the detail: the finer points of the text of the Australian US Free Trade Agreement", outlines the major areas of concern.

Professor John Quiggin takes up the economic analsyis in his paper, and concludes that the deal is anything but about 'free trade'. He calls on parliament to "assert its capacity and responsibility to determine Australian law, rather than being bound by the conclusions of closed-door negotiations. Objectionable provisions of the FTA requiring legislative change, such as the extension of copyright, should be rejected. It would then be up to the US Congress to decide whether to accept an agreement which, while still weighted in favour of US interests, was less unbalanced than the current proposal."

At the time when the Howard government is plastering the media with its $20 million Medicare propaganda campaign, it is clear that the Pharmaceutical Benefits scheme (PBS) could be the main casualty. Dr John Merson, in his article on pharmaceuticals and free trade, shows from his extensive research that the (AUSFTA) is a Trojan horse. His impeccable authority is the chief negotiator for the United States, Bob Zoellick, who, in response to questioning by the US Congress, said "the Free Trade deal was a breakthrough for the US pharmaceutical interests." Merson shows how the drug companies rort the system. In apparent confirmation, last week newspapers reported that the New York State Attorney General filed a lawsuit accusing the British Company, Glaxo Smith Cline, of "repeated and persistent fraud" for concealing problematic issues of efficacy and safety when children use the company's block buster anti-depressant, Paxil. Glaxo has denied the allegations.

We also publish the Senate submission of four leading experts in various aspects of the processes that determine drug prices in Australia. Peter Drahos is professor of law at the Australian National University in Canberra. His book, co-authored with Professor John Braithwaite, Information Feudalism: Who owns the knowledge economy? tells of how current international intellectual property rules have been taken over by powerful corporate interests. The other authors of the Senate submission are Dr Thomas Faunce, Martyn Goddard and Professor David Henry. Their submission asserts that Australia will pay at least a third more for its drugs with the FTA than without it, and they explain why. I have read many submissions to Senate committees, this is one of the best.

The relationship of the Bush administration with the pharmaceutical industry is warm and comfortable. In his book, The buying of the President 2004, Charles Lewis from the (US) Centre for Public Integrity points out that the pharmaceutical industry, the most profitable industry, has become increasingly aligned with the Republican Party. The top five pharmaceutical contributors to the political parties in the 2000 and 2002 election cycles gave 87 per cent of their party donations to the Republican national committees.

The resignation of the chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, David Flint, after the revelations of his warm correspondence with broadcaster Alan Jones, while the 2GB host radio station was the subject of authority enquiries, is just the most recent reminder of the real power of people running the media. The control of the media, culture and our very identity are linked to the proposed trade agreement. A submission by Greg Duffy, as part of the Australian Coalition for Cultural Diversity, has been presented to Senate select committee. Appropriately headed "The new culture vultures: How the Free Trade Agreement is hovering over Australia¹s endangered culture." It shows how the takeover will occur. The organisations represented by the submission indicate the whole industry is up in arms, the Arts and Media Alliance, the Screen Directors Association, The Writers' Guild, the Authors' Society and the Screen Producers' Association.

Also this month we publish a further contribution on privatisation, with another critique of PPPs (public-private partnerships), this time in the context of the UK's schools by Duncan O'Leary from the London-based Demos think tank. Dovetailing is Greg Combet's recent address to the National Press Club, which, amongst much else, draws attention to the deficit in Australia's infrastructure investment, and calls for "a reassessment of current economic thinking in Australia about fiscal priorities and government borrowing." Greg also lists some significant wins by the trade union movement for working Australians, which are building confidence in unions. Union membership has grown in three of the last four years, and community support for unions is high. In a related paper, this month Geoffrey Beckman contends that anti-union laws must be abolished through a process of legislative reform.

We will shortly be publishing our annual triple-bottom line assessment of the performance of Australia's provincial governments, The State of the States, 2004. Last year we were proud to publish the 10th anniversary issue of this series. This was a special issue, prepared on behalf of the Foundation by Stephen Rix and containing a longer term overview of state government performance, and additional chapters on privatisation, child protection and corrective servies policies. This month we publish the "Child protection" chapter on our website. Copies of the full issue are still available from our office. We also publish two papers from our standing-room-only January Evatt breakfast seminar on Australian foreign policy: Andrew Hewitt's paper on "Poverty and national security" and Brendan Lim's "Embracing multilateralism."

The Foundation's next Breakfast Seminar will be on 14 July, and we will be looking into the perverse inter-relationships between precarious employment and the evolution of the social welfare system. The speaker will be Professor Frank Wilkinson, a distinguished economist from Cambridge University, and the eventis not to be missed. Another important event coming up in Sydney in July is a public meeting on "The impact of the Bush-Howard-Blair invasion of Iraq". In this regard, we've also published the full text of Labor leader Mark Latham's "troops home by Christmas" speech on the site. Happy reading.

Bruce Childs President Evatt Foundation 17 June 2004


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