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Protest for/against Free Trade Agreement mount

January 29, 2004, Australian Associated Press

Protests were mounted in support and against an Australia-United States free trade agreement (FTA) today as negotiators edged closer to a final deal.

American manufacturers and business leaders used a function at Congress to demand an agreement be struck, pressuring the Bush administration to support Australia's push for reform of US farm markets.

But in the Australian parliament, protesters dumped 10,000 letters from voters opposed to the FTA who fear the deal will undermine the nation's medical system and culture.

Trade Minister Mark Vaile, in his first public comments on the negotiations he has been undertaking with his US counterpart Robert Zoellick all week, admitted the talks were tough.

He held out hope for a deal, although it may mean him staying in Washington over the weekend.

"We are making progress. We've reached the tough part of the negotiations," he told reporters.

"We said at the outset we'd be challenging the Americans on a number of issues, and we're slowly but surely clearing away a number some of the unresolved issues that were left to this part of the negotiations."

The key outstanding issues are Australia's demands for access to American agricultural markets, particularly its heavily protected sugar, dairy and beef sectors.

Much of the talks so far have focused on America's reluctance to give up any ground on sugar, while negotiations have also focused on the phase-in periods for quota and tariff relief on other farm goods.

Mr Vaile said Australia was continuing to demand major cuts in America's farm protection measures.

"We've always said that we are pursuing a comprehensive agreement here with the US that covers all sectors and within sectors, particularly within the agricultural sector on sugar, beef and dairy," he said.

Australian opponents to the FTA took their protest into Parliament House, unfurling a banner and dumping letters from members of the public fearful of the trade agreement.

Parliament House security staff pulled down the banner but allowed the protest to proceed on the main steps inside the parliament's foyer.

Michael Cebon, from Global Trade Watch, said Australians were opposed to any FTA which undermined affordable medicines, reduced the level of Australian programming on the nation's televisions or affected Australian sovereignty.

"We are here today to tell John Howard that Australians don't want him to sell off our sovereignty, to trade it away from America for some gains that he reckons we're going to get out of agriculture," he said.

In the US, Myron Brilliant, vice president for Asia at the US Chamber of Commerce, said it would be a mistake for an agreement to be delayed until after the November presidential and congressional elections.

"We're so close now, why wait?" he said.

"If the US and Australia, which share a common platform on trade liberalisation, can't reach an agreement, I think it sends the wrong message globally."

Bill Lane, Washington lobbyist for Caterpillar, said the agreement would help US manufacturers by immediately eliminating tariffs on most Australian goods.