U.S. to pursue free trade agreement with Australia

by Emily Wilson
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CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA — U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick has formally notified U.S. Congressional leaders of U.S. objectives and goals for negotiations for a free trade agreement with Australia.

Zoellick made the announcement after meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Trade Minister Mark Vaile in Canberra. The negotiations will begin 90 days from Nov. 13 — the date that U.S. President George W. Bush provided the statutory authority for Zoellick to notify Congress of the Administration’s intent to enter into negotiations with Australia.

In the letter to Congressional leaders, Zoellick highlighted the importance of making progress on agriculture issues in the context of the negotiation. Zoellick wrote, "We will work hard to facilitate the export of U.S. food and agricultural products to the Australian market and to address the full range of issues facing U.S. agriculture exports."

However, in a recent on-line report in the Australian newspaper, The Age, Prime Minister Howard warned bluntly that for negotiations to lead to a free-trade agreement, "there’ll need to be clearly a change of attitudes" in Washington towards farm protection, The Age reported.

"I can assure you that we are not going to in any way compromise or sell out the interests of Australian farmers in pursuit of a free-trade agreement with the United States or any other country," he told a National Farmers Federation dinner.

In Washington, the NFF’s counterpart, the American Farm Bureau Federation, released a letter to Zoellick, declaring: "We accept the initiation of (free-trade) negotiations with Australia, but that does not necessarily imply willingness to accept the final agreement," according to The Age report.

But only half the farm groups that wrote to Zoellick two months earlier opposing negotiations with Australia have signed the new letter supporting them, indicating that any deal would face a tough fight in Congress, where farm groups have strong support, the newspaper said.