February 10, 2004 | Peter

FTA – The Good and the Less Good

So, after what the media tells us was a Herculean struggle, a free trade agreement between the US and Oz was signed. It is a lot less than was promised by the government and the impression lingers that George called John and put the pressure on. Not that I think George would really have any idea what the FTA was about.
I’ve said before that free trade is a worthwhile concept, but that things get complicated once you move past acceptance of the principle to actually doing it. It is certainly not true that economic growth statistics tell the whole story. On principle growth in trade between Oz and the US is a good thing, but not if the benefits go to, say, some already rich investors who stick the profits offshore while the costs land on some struggling farmer or insecure factory worker.
Anyway, time will tell how the costs and benefits pan out, but they will likely have political and well as social impact.
There are three things that do bother me about the FTA so far: how it will affect the pharmaceutical benefits scheme, local content in media and quarantine arrangements.
The rise of the medico-drug industry is a phenomenon of our times, and I certainly question just how effective it is in maintaining health standards. Many people do rely on various drugs, however, and something like the PBS is essential to alleviate the cost to them. These people have minimal options, and they must not become pawns in the efforts of the pharmaceutical industry to maintain high profits. This is a case where the government has to assert the interests of the vulnerable users of these drugs over any principles of free trade.
Local content in TV, film, etc is ultimately about culture. Will we keep a unique Oz national culture, having at last claimed that right after generations of looking to Britain, or will it get washed away in the flood of junk from the US? This is already happening and it is directly impacting on the young. Anyone who listens to the way they talk can see how the very language is changing because of the constant flow of American culture via magazines, TV, film, music and the Internet. It has to be said that much local content is not worth defending, especially as junk like Oz Idol and other reality and quiz shows are direct copies of US originals. But amid the dross there is enough gold to make it worthwhile.
Finally, there are the quarantine issues. Oz can boast an utterly unique ecology, thanks to our age and relative isolation. The long time necessary to travel here acted as a natural quarantine system, even when the continent was discovered and then settled by Europeans. Subsequently, when steam power and later long range aircraft made travel easier and cheaper, we established stringent quarantine controls. So we still have a comparatively clean, special environment populated by many unique species. In addition, our primary industries are still untainted by many of the diseases that have wreaked havoc elsewhere. Indeed, this has been a real asset in selling out produce overseas, as the current concern with Mad Cow disease shows.
The Americans do not appreciate these facts about the need for physical quarantine. They tend to see quarantine as a constraint on imports, and they want our quarantine systems weakened. If we do this, the future consequences may be very serious indeed in economic terms, and catastrophic in terms of conserving out unique indigenous species.
Making trade more efficient through FTAs is no bad thing, but completely subordinating basic social, environmental, cultural and ultimately political needs to that of assumed economic efficiency would be profound stupidity.

Posted by Peter at 2:53 pm | Comments Off on FTA – The Good and the Less Good |
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