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Vaile briefs officials, defends monopoly

The Age, Melbourne

Vaile briefs officials, defends monopoly

By Michael Gawenda, Washington

9 March 2006

TRADE Minister Mark Vaile has briefed senior Bush Administration officials on the Cole inquiry, will today brief members of Congress, and is defending Australia’s monopoly wheat sales system from the attacks of US lobby groups.

In Washington for a review of the free trade agreement with his American counterpart, US Trade Representative Robert Portman, Mr Vaile said it was important to brief US officials on the Cole inquiry.

"I took the opportunity to brief ambassador Portman on what is happening, the initiative the Australian Government has taken immediately following the release of the Volcker report last year," he said at a news conference with Mr Portman after their meeting.

Mr Vaile today will brief senior members of Congress, including House Agriculture Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte and Senate Finance Committee chairman Charles Grassley.

He will also meet Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Mr Portman and Mr Vaile said the free trade agreement - which was under review - was still in its early stages and, in Mr Vaile’s words, it was a "living, breathing dynamic agreement" that would change over time.

Australia’s trade deficit with the US grew by $4 billion in the first year of the agreement, but Mr Vaile said it would deliver substantial benefits to Australia in coming years, especially in the services area, in investment, and in the opportunities for Australian companies to win US government procurement contracts.

Both sides refused changes on contentious trade issues, such as the exemption of sugar from the agreement and the Labor-sponsored amendment designed to stop drug companies "evergreening" patents to stop the development of cheaper generic drugs.

Mr Portman said the talks had not been about "rewriting the FTA" but looking at ways to increase trade between the two countries.

Meanwhile, US Wheat Associates, which represents American state grain boards, described as a sham the Australian Government’s plan to sell 350,000 tones of wheat to Iraq through three companies rather than AWB. Wheat Associates president Alan Tracy said the three companies would buy the wheat from the national pool, which AWB controlled.

Mr Vaile rejected that claim last night, saying some of the wheat would come from the domestic pool.