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Schieffer aims to fix FTA impasse

Sydney Morning Herald

Schieffer aims to fix FTA impasse

4 November 2004

The United States ambassador to Australia has left for Washington in a final bid to work through details holding up the free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries.

Tom Schieffer said he planned to cut through the underbrush that was delaying the historic FTA and may prevent its planned start from January 1.

Prime Minister John Howard and Trade Minister Mark Vaile both believe the re-election of President George W Bush means the deal will get through in time for it to start as scheduled.

Although the deal itself, and the legislation required by both nations to get the FTA operational, have been passed the agreement has been held up by problems covering the formal exchange of letters by the two countries.

The letters confirm that each nation has put in place the necessary laws to bring the FTA into operation.

The letters were due to be exchanged on October 31, but US officials have raised concerns, largely in the intellectual property area.

There are also concerns about a promise by Prime Minister John Howard to push down drug prices under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme that would directly affect American drug companies.

Mr Schieffer, en route to Washington, said he would spend his time working with US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick and other officials to tidy up the loose ends now delaying the FTA.

"What we’re trying to do is to clear away the underbrush so that we can get the thing certified," Mr Schieffer told reporters.

"We’re not there yet, we could be there to where it was agreed and could go into effect on January the 1st.

"We could also have to talk about it a little bit longer."

Mr Schieffer said with both the Australian and US elections out of the way it would be easier to resolve the FTA.

"We do have problems, there are differences of opinion between our two governments," he said.

"But the way you resolve that is the way friends and partners always resolve difficulties, they talk about it and see if they can work something out."

Mr Howard said he was still optimistic the FTA would start operation on schedule.

Although he did not discuss the issue in a phone call with Mr Bush, it will come up when they meet at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Chile later this month.

"I’m still optimistic but there are some details to be worked out," the prime minister told reporters.

Mr Vaile said Mr Bush’s victory was good news for Australia and for global trade talks.

"It will be a very, very positive circumstance moving forward for the Australian economy," he told reporters.

"Of course, we’re in the final stages moving towards the implementation of the Australia-United States free trade agreement.

"But bigger than that ... I think it will be positive for the global economy."

New Zealand is expected to push for its own FTA with the US, which - because of the free trade agreement between NZ and Australia - would effectively create a free trade area between the three nations.