Skip to Content

How to kill a country

Linda Weiss and her colleagues spell out the disaster that is the US-Australia 'free' trade deal.

The countdown to destruction.

Over the next forty minutes or so, we hope to shine a little light on the killer trade deal and what it means for Australia. I will start with a few introductory comments before handing over to my co-authors; they will cover quarantine, investment, and intellectual property, and I will round off with some points on the PBS.

A good place to start is with the two questions that we've been asked countless times since the book came out: Why did we write the book, and why the killer title? There were a number of reasons why we came out of scholar's closet to write this book. But the main one was that there were clearly two stories to the deal -- yet only one was getting any serious discussion. And it wasn't the one that would deliver a killer blow.

"To point out this strategy is not to be Anti-American. In fact, it is hard not to admire the way the American side went about achieving their goals, with steadfast purpose, not letting woolly notions of a 'special relationship' get in the way of a good deal when it was handed to them. The Americans clearly didn't do this to us. Our government did this to us - and full responsibility lies with them."

There was the story about poor market access for our top exports - about how badly we did in getting concessions on beef and dairy and virtually everything else. We gave the US immediate, open, and unfettered access to our agricultural markets from day one and, in return, we must wait 11-18 years for quotas to be lifted in our most competitive exports -- beef, wine, and so on. The list of puny market concessions we obtained from the deal is a lengthy one and the examples could be extended. But the point is that Australia did very badly on market access -- so badly that the Australian negotiators walked away from the deal only to be ordered back to the table by Howard - and this access story was very well covered in the media.

But there is another story -- a much more damaging side to the deal -- which is the real focus of our book. This is the less well-understood tale about the undoing of our institutional advantages -- the dismantling and destruction of some of the nation's most important institutional arrangements like:

• Our rigorous Quarantine procedures that safeguard Australian agriculture from devastating exotic pests and diseases and give us a competitive advantage in world markets;

• Our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) that protects the health system against soaring prescription costs and makes medicines affordable for all Australians;

• Our Intellectual Property (IP) laws that encourage local innovators in IT and biotech, for example, without extravagant protection of incumbent firms;

• Our system of Government Purchasing programs that support Australian industry and return tax dollars to Australian residents.

We wanted to tell this story - to put on record how our government has agreed to changes designed to unravel our institutional advantages and tilt the playing field dramatically in favour of a foreign power. We wanted to show that these rules and arrangements - which preserve our economic security and contribute to our competitiveness, not to mention our independence - are on countdown to destruction under this agreement.

Moreover, we wanted people to understand that the damage from the deal is not something we can safely relegate to some far distant future. Quite the contrary. As we show in the book, some of the changes have already taken place during the FTA negotiating period - in a kind of dress rehearsal for the new era about to begin. For example, we find inescapable evidence of changes like the overturning of our rigorous (scientifically based) Quarantine protocols that safeguard our plants and animals from alien pests and diseases. We've seen three very shocking, even scandalous, cases during the FTA negotiations -- where Biosecurity Australia has one by one 'inexplicably' overturned existing protocols to allow imports of bananas, apples, and pork, which would bring devastation to these industries.

We also wanted to make the point that the two sides went into the trade negotiations playing very different games, seeking very different goals, and producing very different outcomes. When the Australian side went into bat, they were negotiating simply for better market access. The US had a more complex agenda - a global strategy - and Australia played directly to that agenda:

• A basic US objective in such trade agreements is to neutralise or displace the institutional advantages of the trading partner and wherever possible replace them with their own rules and procedures. This is often euphemistically referred to as 'harmonisation' (a pattern that has been widely observed in other US-led agreements).

• So while the Americans have been very effective in getting us to agree to play by their rules (in Quarantine, in IP, in Government Procurement, and in how we manage our PBS), we have been preoccupied with trying to get decent market access. We failed in our simple goals and they succeeded in their complex ones.

To point out this strategy is not to be Anti-American. In fact, it is hard not to admire the way the American side went about achieving their goals, with steadfast purpose, not letting woolly notions of a 'special relationship' get in the way of a good deal when it was handed to them. The Americans clearly didn't do this to us. Our government did this to us - and full responsibility lies with them.

So, to come back to my opening remarks, the point we are endeavouring to convey with the dramatic title of our book - How To Kill A Country - is that by introducing changes that dismantle our key institutions and replacing them with American-designed rules and arrangements, the trade deal will slowly but effectively destroy the foundation of our economic security, independence, and ability to compete - the very things that are essential to our future prosperity. These are now on countdown to destruction. So let me hand over to my co-authors to flesh out some of these points.

[read more]