What an interesting development in the debate as to whether Australia should adopt the Australia-US FTA. The FTA has already been ratified by Congress and signed into law by President Bush. For a while it seemed depressingly certain that Mark Latham’s Labor Party (ALP) would capitulate to the Howard Government and the Bush Administration, passing the FTA against the will of the party’s Left, and its traditional supporters of unions and artists. Now it is now quite likely that the FTA debate won’t be resolved until after the next election and may become a real election issue in Australia. The development is Labor’s announcement that it will only support the FTA on two conditions, and that the Government has immediately rejected one of those conditions.
It is ironic that there is a chance that the FTA is being delayed by an Intellectual Property issue. I have been very concerned about the FTA’s adverse effect on Australian copyright laws (see this rather damning critique by Kim Weatherall) since the agreement was first reached. Those concerns have largely been overshadowed by some of the other ways in which this agreement is such a bad deal for Australia. It is infuriating that the copyright issue seems to get more attention in the US than in Australia.
The IP laws being debated now are patent laws. One of Mark Latham’s conditions for passing the FTA is that Australia’s patent laws must be changed, making it an offence for companies to lodge spurious patent claims. The concern is that without this change, American drug companies would be able to use “evergreening” tactics to delay drugs from becoming generic (and cheaper).
It is laughable that by refusing to budge on this issue, John Howard is acting as if he is the staunch defender of Australia’s IP laws. As reported in the Melbourne Age, he said “We are not willing just to provide a political fix for our opponents. We are not willing to turn the patent law of this country on its head.” Never mind that he is very happy to turn Australia’s copyright law on its head by supporting significant changes to implement the FTA.
Maybe John Howard is opposing these patent law amendments so that he can keep the FTA issue alive until the election, so that he can say that the ALP is divided and Anti-American about this issue.
I would be very surprised if either leaders back down now. Mark Latham is already in enough trouble with the ALP Left that he cannot afford to snatch back this bone which he has thrown them.
I for one am very glad that the FTA is currently a victim of this brinkmanship between John Howard and Mark Latham. This gladness is likely to be short-lived, because it is still very likely that the FTA will be passed, after the election if nothing else. But every day that we aren’t living under these laws is a good day. There is always the remote chance that Howard’s gambit of making the FTA an election issue will backfire on him. People don’t like being made criminals for doing common, socially non-controversial actions which most people don’t believe to be wrong.