Australia is concerned over the extent to which US courts can stretch the reach of American antitrust laws overseas.It has been trying to negotiate with Washington on the issue for more than three years -- but without success.
The last rebuff came only two weeks ago when a Western Australian group sought to use a US court to prevent development of an alumina smelter in Western Australia by the US-owned Alcoa Company. The group, concerned with environmental problems it believes Alcoa causes, hopes for US court action because it says the Australian government has allowed the issue to slide.
The Australian government put strong pressure on Washington to advise the US court that the matter was not within the court's jurisdiction or that it was not in the interests of the United States that the court should involve itself.But the US government refused to intervene.
Related to another issue, the Australian Federal Parliament will soon consider a bill to allow Australian companies that have been penalized by triple damages in US courts to recover damages from the companies that sued them. The legislation also provides for cooperative enforcement with other countries to block US court verdicts.
Speaking in favor of the Liberal Party bill, opposition Labor Party legal spokesman Gareth Evans stated the views of many Australian companies when he said:
"The growing enthusiasms of US courts for minding everyone else's business through the assertion of extraterritorial jurisdiction is something which has to be resisted by any nation which values its sovereignty and independence."
The bill initially arose out of the "Westinghouse case," an antitrust action brought by Westinghouse Electric Company against several international companies involved in the sale of uranium. The Australian companies involved have settled their claims.
Attorney General Peter Durack, who introduced the bill, expect unanimous support for it. Whether the government actively lobbies for its passage, however, is likely to depend on the Reagan administration's willingness to negotiate on the issue.
Introducing the bill, Attorney General Durack said Australia's laws and policies are "quite unjustifiably threatened by the jurisdictional assertions of US courts in proceedings against Australian exporters." He added, "There is no warrant for United States antitrust laws overreaching our own export laws and policies."
The attorney general said Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and Britain have also felt the need at one time or another for legislation banning the jurisdictional assertions of the US in antitrust cases.
Diplomatic efforts aimed at forcing the US to amend its antitrust laws have dragged on for years. Mr. Durack said Australia wants to arrange a bilateral agreement with the US for intergovernmental consultation when anti trust claims involving corporations in both countries arise