Left-Wingers Disapprove, But US-Australia Free Trade Deal Edges Closer

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - After five months of vacillation, and despite enduring unhappiness among left-wingers, Australia's official opposition Labor Party agreed Tuesday to back the free trade agreement negotiated between the government and Washington.

Labor leader Mark Latham's disinclination to support the deal sooner because of trade union opposition mirrored the earlier reluctance of Senator John Kerry to throw his weight behind it.

At a rowdy meeting of Labor's federal lawmakers, Latham proposed making support for the free trade agreement (FTA) conditional on amendments relating to two areas of concern for some Australians -- how the deal will affect the pharmaceutical sector and local content in the movie and television industry.

He said in a statement that "despite several flaws," the negotiated FTA had "net economic benefits for Australia" and should be supported.

In a vote, Latham then won backing for the pact, reportedly from two-thirds of lawmakers voting.

The party caucus debate and vote took place after a long-awaited Senate committee inquiry into the deal was finalized. On Monday, Labor members of the bipartisan committee voiced some concerns but said on balance Australia should accept the agreement.

Latham had refused to support the FTA until the inquiry was over, prompting senior figures in Prime Minister John Howard's government to accuse him of wasting time and pandering to anti-American elements in the party.

Howard and others earlier noted pointedly that the premiers of Australia's six states - all controlled by Labor - supported the FTA long before Latham was prepared to do so.

This week's expressions of bitter opposition by left-wing lawmakers and trade-unionists have exposed further divisions in the party, shortly before its leader of eight months takes Labor into a general election campaign.

In the U.S., Democratic Party legislators were also divided over the FTA, and when Trade Representative Robert Zoellick signed the deal with Australian Trade Minister Mark Vaile last May, Kerry at first declined to endorse it.

Some of the then-presumptive Democrat presidential nominee's key union backers opposed the deal, arguing that it may undercut American employment, labor and environment standards.

In late June, Kerry finally came out in support the FTA, saying in a statement printed in the Senate record that the agreement with "an important ally" would boost U.S. exports, while voicing regret that it did not include "strong and enforceable labor standards."

Last month the U.S. Congress passed the deal, by a 314-109 vote in the House of Representatives and a 80-16 vote in the Senate.

In the House, Democrats voted 116 in favor and 84 against, while 198 Republican lawmakers voted for the measure and 24 against; in the Senate, 14 of the 16 no-votes were cast by Democrats. Neither Kerry nor his vice-presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards voted.

Leading U.S. business groups have praised the deal as the best yet negotiated for American manufacturers.

For many Australians, the prospect of an historic FTA with the world's largest economy is seen as a reward for the government's strong support for the U.S. in the war against terror and the Iraq campaign.

With parliament in Canberra resuming Tuesday after a recess, the FTA is expected to be debated in the Senate within days. If the enabling legislation is passed, the deal will come into effect from Jan. 1 next year.

The U.S. has FTAs in place with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA) and with several other countries, including Israel, Jordan, Chile and Singapore. Still others are being negotiated.

Kerry has promised a 120-day review of all trade agreements if elected in November.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow