Ten devils in the detail

Patricia Ranald & Louise Southalan

The AUSFTA was supposed to remove trade barriers between the US and Australia and lead to economic growth. Australian farmers were supposed to gain from removal of US agricultural tariffs but community organisations became concerned when US negotiators identified regulation like price controls on medicines and Australian content rules in film and television as barriers to trade. The 800-page text of the agreement is at Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The text justifies our concerns, as it is completely lopsided. The US sugar market is excluded and beef and dairy tariff reductions are phased in over 18 years. The National Farmers' Federation has declared, "This is not a free trade agreement" (NFF Media Release, 9 February 2004, National Farmers Federation).

This summary of the text shows that, despite assurances, the agreement weakens Australian price controls on medicines and limits the regulation of Australian content in new forms of media. It adopts US copyright laws, which will cost consumers more. It sets up joint US-Australian committees to review policies on medicines, quarantine and food labelling and enables many policies to be challenged by the US government. It treats social regulation of essential services like tariffs, "bound" or frozen at current levels and subject to challenge if increased. In short, it weakens governments' right to regulate and locks in moves towards US-style policies without democratic debate or decision.

The AUSFTA can still be debated and rejected. A Senate Select Committee and the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties will hold public inquiries over the next three months and report in June. Although Parliament cannot vote on the whole agreement, it will vote on some legislation required for implementation, which can be blocked in the Senate. This summary helps you to take part in the public debate and tell Senators and members of parliament to reject the agreement if you believe it is not in the public interest.

1. Economic benefits unclear