10/02/2004 - 21:00

Free trade compromise

10/02/2004 - 21:00


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THE free trade agreement with the US is obviously the talking point this week.

THE free trade agreement with the US is obviously the talking point this week.

It is a deal I have watched with some interest, and cautiously welcome, albeit with a number of caveats.

Firstly, in the world of trade, change is a good thing. Anything that tips the balance against unreasonable protectionist behaviour is a positive. It allows those who live in fear of change – such as US farmers – to realise that free trade is not entirely a bad thing.

Of course in this instance we don’t have a free trade agreement, we have a widened trade agreement, but generally there are a lot of opportunities for Australian business from this deal, not least the fact that we have beaten most of our Asian partners to it.

On the flip side, while beef farmers and the sugar industry might be upset that they have gained little or nothing, it is not as if they are being additionally penalised, either.

The key will be in the fine print regarding US demands to reduce quarantine barriers concerning food, limit cultural protection governing our media, and increase transparency for the pharmaceutical benefits scheme process.

All of these things, in my opinion, are manageable.

Quarantine issues are important and the security of our borders, in this respect, is critical.

But, just as we are getting better at securing our safety in terms of travel, technology is likely to deliver the ability to better guard against food-borne pests and diseases.

Culturally, I sympathise with our film and television industry but I wonder if this battle isn’t lost already, so I am not sure what the rules would change there anyway.

Right now, the television business is keeping busy doing home-grown versions of US reality shows, so I am not sure what we are being protected from.

The PBS is a more important issue, to my mind.

This system keeps pharmaceutical costs down but there is also a view that its bureaucracy and lack of transparency hinder legitimate products from cost effectively getting to people who need them.

There is also concern that the PBS is a barrier to drug company research investment in Australia.

This may need some further debate in light of the FTA. What is the real cost of the system that is perceived a world leader in a developed nation’s delivery of health services.

At the end of the day, many of the headline issues are actually quite distracting from the matter at hand – whether the FTA with the US will benefit us.

In a pure business sense, I would suggest it will. More open trade means more opportunities for our entrepreneurial companies to enter the world’s biggest market, a market we understand very well. Let’s just hope that, by the time our beef producers gain full access to US markets in 18 years, Australian-owned businesses still exist and are thriving from the benefits of this change.



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