BY ALISON DELLIT
Australian big business is beginning to get some of the benefits it expected from the war in Iraq, as Washington and US corporations start to scatter some crumbs. Prime Minister John Howard, the Australian wheat industry and one of Australia's most notoriously anti-union corporations have been the first to be rewarded for Canberra's support for Washington's murderous invasion.
On May 6, Chris Corrigan's Patrick Corporation won Australia's first Iraq reconstruction contract: to assess the work required to rebuild some of Iraq's airports.
Patrick's previous Middle East activities include the training of strikebreakers in Dubai for use on Australian wharves in 1997, which it followed up with a government-backed attempt to smash the Maritime Union of Australia in 1998.
Like most Iraq-related deals Australian firms are vying for, Patrick won a sub-contract from a US corporation. All contracts awarded by the US Agency for International Development have so far gone to US companies — this is not expected to change. These companies will be most influential in deciding which non-US corporations profit from the reconstruction work.
Australia's wheat corporations were initially worried that complete US control over Iraq would reduce their market share, which was enormous under the UN "oil for food" program.
Those fears have been almost entirely dispelled by the decision of US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage to appoint former Australian Wheat Board (AWB) chairperson Trevor Flugge, who is also on the board of the large agribusiness Wesfarmers, as an advisor to the Iraqi agriculture ministry. This is a significant concession: Flugge is the only non-US, non-Iraqi advisor to an interim Iraqi minister.
The Australian government has conducted significant lobbying for the AWB. Foreign minister Alexander Downer recently established the Council for Arab-Australian Relations to "promote social, political, cultural and trade links with Arab countries". Not coincidently, it is chaired by current AWB chairperson Brendan Stewart. Other board members include directors of BHP, Woodside Petroleum, Sunrice, Mitsubishi and Toyota.
Howard has also been rewarded by Washington. Aside from the rollicking good holiday at Dubya's dude ranch, the US administration has agreed to begin negotiating a free trade agreement with Australia, suggesting a timetable that would make it the fastest negotiated free trade agreement in US history.
The announcement is significant for the message that it sends. In order to host Howard, Bush abruptly cancelled a visit to Canada. The US government made a clear point: it will reward supporters of its war drive and punish those who oppose it.
In the May 10 Australian Financial Review, Peter Hartcher reported that a senior US official told him that the pomp of Howard's visit (which included a standing ovation at New York's Yankee stadium) was intended "to send a message to the whole world that the US appreciates allies that stand by it".
How significant this concession is, however, will depend on what the agreement contains. Howard argues a free trade agreement will deliver Australian big business an extra $4 billion a year, mainly to the sugar, dairy, beef and vehicle industries, which have been lobbying for it.
However, a report prepared for the government by ACIL Consulting found that a US-Australia free trade agreement would cost Australian capitalists more than it would deliver, confirming the fears of agricultural business, some manufacturers, and film and television production houses.
Whatever the eventual result for the mega-rich big business shareholders, such a deal will only make life harder for working people. For starters, the US is likely to demand a watering down of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, a reduction in Australian content in film and television and attacks on Australia's quarantine standards.
Our capitalist ruling class may snaffle up a few crumbs that fall from the table of US imperialism, but Australia's working people will gain nothing at all.
From Green Left Weekly, May 14, 2003.
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