PRESIDENT Bush appears to have successfully defused a long-standing trade dispute with Australia.
After a 45-minute meeting yesterday with Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Paul Keating, Australian farmers were buoyed by hopes they might not be hurt as much in the future by United States export subsidies on agricultural commodities. Bush admitted the subsidies, called the Export Enhancement Program (EEP), have hurt Australian farmers.
As part of an effort to heal the wounds, Bush invited the Australian farmers to the US for further consultations. Mr. Keating, at a press conference, called this aspect an "information exchange ... that at least we will know about the operation of EEP."
In addition, Bush agreed to examine US practices of using EEP sales in markets where the European Community is not involved. The US has maintained that it only uses EEP to counter subsidies by the Europeans.
Bush's apparent success at addressing the farmers' complaints highlights a successful trip to Australia.
The Bush visit was the first major foreign affairs foray by Keating, who unseated Prime Minister Bob Hawke last month in an intraparty squabble. According to a US official who was at one of the meetings with Keating, the new prime minister impressed the US as "knowledgeable and in good command of the issues. He was a leader without being aggressive. He left a good impression." Bush also praised Keating.
In addition to agriculture, Bush and Keating discussed such "big issue" items as the recessions in both countries and the former Soviet Union. Bush also reassured Australians of a continued US political and military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
"Our role and our purpose as a Pacific power will remain constant," Bush said in the first address by a US president to both houses of Parliament.
Satisfying the farmers made the trip more than just a goodwill trip. The National Farmers' Federation (NFF) says the EEP cost its farmers $760 million, or $30 per ton in last year's harvest. The US Department of Agriculture disputes this estimate.
The apparent cooling of the conflict came as several thousand farmers demonstrated outside Parliament House.
"If it's fair to ask Korean and Japan to open up their markets, it's fair to ask the US to open up its markets to Australian farmers," said Ed Wright, President of the Cattle Council of Australia. This apparent contradiction made Page 1 news in the US, prompting Bush to note during a press conference: "We've never said we're totally pure."
Farmers came from every state in Australia, some driving eight hours to get to Canberra. "We need to keep the pressure on," said Trevor Tremain, a farmer from Dubbo in New South Wales.
The farmers and Keating both stressed to Bush the need for a satisfactory resolution to the Uruguay round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Graham Blight, president of the NFF, said Bush gave the farmers a commitment to keep the pressure on Europe during the final stages of the GATT negotiations which will resume Jan. 13.
In addition, Mr. Blight says Bush indicated Australian farmers would be consulted before future EEP sales. "That was always a sticky tape, because we only got to the stage where we heard about a sale after it happens," says Blight. However, a second high US official who was present at the meeting denies the Australian farmers would be consulted before EEP sales.
"The notion that there will be some sort of special consultative process with the farmers stretches it too far," he says. "What we are willing to do is have a fuller set of discussions on subsidies in general and our perceptions in different markets."
In a later press conference, Blight said the differences between the US and the farmers were "minuscule." The US actually began a process of informing the Australian government of upcoming EEP sales this past autumn.
In the discussions with the farmers, the US also made the point that Australia has its own trade barriers. US officials particularly pointed to Australian limits on the foreign content of television programming and commercials.
"The message is this is a two-way street and we expect the same treatment," says the second US official.
In addition, the Australians made no progress on their requests to eliminate a duty on greasy wool, or quotas on beef, sugar, and opium used in medicines.
While in Australia, Bush exuded charm, meeting students and inviting ordinary Australians to his hotel to meet him. There were few demonstrators on the streets. On highways around airports, Australians pulled over to the side of the road merely for a glimpse of Air Force One.
It was the first presidential visit to Australia since President Johnson's controversial 1966 tour during the Vietnam War.