Unions slam Labor's FTA sell-out

November 17, 1993

Kerryn Williams

On August 3, the Labor parliamentary caucus formally decided to endorse the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement, despite sustained opposition from unions, community groups and the ALP's own left faction.

The same day, US President George Bush signed the US-Australia FTA at a special ceremony at the White House. Noting Australia's participation in the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush declared: "The United States and Australia have never been closer."

Latham has tried to appease the widespread opposition to his party's sell-out by insisting on two amendments before the ALP will support the bill in the house: one to protect Australian content on television and the other outlawing dubious patent applications by US drug companies that would delay the arrival of cheaper generic drugs onto the Australian market. Latham also promised to introduce further "safeguards" against potential negative effects of the FTA if he is elected into office.

The first amendment was accepted by the Coalition government on the basis that it simply ratifies the status quo. While the second amendment provoked quibbling, and the standard accusations by Coalition MPs that Latham is "anti-American", a settlement seems likely on that as well.

With or without small amendments, the FTA will bring more bad news for working people, threatening jobs, health care, public services and the environment.

On August 3, Greens Senator Bob Brown called for the FTA to be rejected outright, arguing that Labor's amendments would not "save manufacturing jobs, provide an environmental impact assessment, protect Australia's right to legislate on water, protect universities from increased costs under intellectual property provisions or protect the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from increased drug prices".

The August 3 Australian Financial Review revealed that the Labor caucus majority had never had any intention of opposing the deal. Journalist Jennifer Hewitt quoted a "prominent business figure" who said that ALP trade spokesperson Stephen Conroy had assured them "not to worry about all the public statements, that it was all under control and that Labor would pass it in the end". Hewitt likewise reported that "US officials were similarly privately assured by Labor figures it would all be OK in the end".

Following Labor's decision to support the FTA, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union announced that it would "prune back" support for Labor's election campaign and divert funding away from the ALP to parties who had consistently opposed the FTA.

AMWU national secretary Doug Cameron, who is a member of Labor's left faction, said in a statement posted to the union's website on August 3: "It is quite clear we will not be in a position to put substantial financial or physical resources behind the party, as a whole, because the parliamentary caucus has chosen to betray our members."

Noting that the union's national council will decide on allocation of donations to political parties, Cameron said: "In all honesty, I cannot recommend support for politicians who lack backbone and principle. There are honourable exceptions in the ALP caucus but there are two other parties in this parliament that have consistently condemned the free trade agreement and the damage it will do to our country."

According to the August 4 Australian Financial Review, the AMWU plans to only make donations to Labor members who opposed the deal, and to the Greens, who Cameron said "have been consistent in their opposition to the FTA".

Others are even more critical. Tim Gooden, assistant secretary of the Geelong and Region Trades and Labor Council, said on August 3, "there's zero left for Australian workers and pensioners in the Australian Labor Party".

Gooden, who is the Socialist Alliance candidate for the federal seat of Corio, described Latham's show of concern over the FTA as "a cynical pretence, a joke to fool pensioners dependent on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and workers like those in the manufacturing industry around Geelong into thinking that Labor was taking their concerns seriously".

Gooden called on the trade union movement "not to give a cent to the ALP" for its federal election campaign. According to Gooden, "The only clear beneficiaries of this deal are Australia's big corporations". Gooden called on unions like the AMWU to "stop feeding the hand that bites them — the ALP as a party". He argued that "Australian workers need a party of their own", rather than the non-choice between the Coalition and Labor wings of the one "pro-corporate political machine".

Dean Mighell, Victorian secretary of the Electrical Trades Union told Green Left Weekly that his union is strongly opposed to the FTA and will continue to oppose it. "Australia is set to sell its cultural soul and its manufacturing soul and workers will only suffer enormously."

In response to Labor's two amendments, Mighell said that the ALP is "playing clever politics to be seen to be different", but that "You can play around the edges and try to look like a working class hero, but it doesn't make you one."

Chris Cain, secretary of the Western Australian branch of the Maritime Union Australia, told GLW that the ALP's decision to endorse the FTA "indicates that the Labor Party is not fair dinkum about supporting Australian working class people".

Cain said that the FTA will benefit "multinationals, ship owners, stevedoring companies, and bosses", at the expense of "jobs for Australian people, health, and the old-aged pensioners". He said that "the Labor Party should be ashamed of themselves for agreeing to what is basically a Liberal Party document" and called on Labor to take the decision on the FTA to "a referendum of Australia's workers".

Cain welcomed the decision of the AMWU to divert funds away from the ALP, towards parties opposed to the FTA. While the national policy of his union is to support the ALP, he said that his branch is "very selective about who we support. We will support people who support this union and workers' rights, wages and conditions".

From Green Left Weekly, August 11, 2004.
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