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Sydney Herald - FTA Debate

July 2, 2004 - Debate continues on the proposed Free Trade Agreement, in this week's Sydney Herald.  Below is Toni Collette's opinion piece opposing the FTA, Mark Vaile's response, and David Wenham's response to the response.

Being strong, smart and ourselves

A unique identity is being threatened by the US free trade agreement, writes Toni Collette.

I grew up in Blacktown. There wasn't much to do there. We weren't by a beach or any kind of national park. It really came down to playing with the kids in the street, riding bikes and watching television and movies. It was my way of learning and connecting with the world.

It was Australian movies such as BMX Bandits, Playing Beattie Bow, Fatty Fin, High Tide and My Brilliant Career which made me think and feel and laugh. And not only excite me to want to be a part of the world but want to be a part of the telling of these stories. Unique Australian stories.

I would never have dreamed of having a career in film. But working in Australia on films that speak directly to my heart and represent who we intrinsically are has allowed me to perform on an international stage and represent our rich country. Our already fragile film industry is celebrated by countries all around the world. We need to nurture, respect it, and be proud of it. It defines who we are and how the world sees us.

Art, no matter what form it arrives in, is a representation and cultural reflection of who we are. We need that. These Australian movies and others, as well as the occasional episode of Humphrey B.Bear, Play School, Flipper (and I was on Romper Room, for God's sake!) urged me to find and want to express my creative voice. It helped me to become a strong and smart individual. And isn't that what we want for our youth? There is no doubt of the transformative, inspiring and empowering effects of the performing arts on young minds.

Television and the media are becoming a larger and more powerful means for dissemination of information than ever before. As much as we may not want to admit it, television is the most powerful and successful medium of communication for us.

Our children watch TV to learn. If they grow up with American standards and expectations in our relatively naive land, it'll create such a stifling sense of confusion. They are already eating McDonald's, drinking Coca-Cola and being swamped by Disney.

We don't want Australian kids to grow up with American accents. We don't want a country of clones wondering why their world is so different from the one they watch on TV or see at the movies. And that's what will happen if we allow our screens to be dominated by American product. We have to prevent a diet of vacuous American fodder, which will spoil their, and in turn, our true potential.

As I understand it, if the free trade agreement goes ahead, the limited protection in place for Australian free to air television will not apply to new media. With technology moving at the pace it does, we don't know how our programs will be delivered to us in 10 or 15 years and that could be a disaster for us. One that we won't be able to fix. We need to ensure that this agreement doesn't come into effect.

We are not negotiating away inanimate objects. We are talking about hearts and minds, the way we express ourselves. We want a separate and recognisable identity that is celebrated on our screens. We need to foster pride in our culture, which is who we are. Australia is such a young country. We are not bound by tradition.

We have a choice to make. Will we choose to be manipulated by and have to consult a fear-based, paranoid America? Or will we choose to stride forth being true to ourselves, consolidating and nurturing our communities, gaining strength and respect as we grow as Australians?

Toni Collette is an actor. This is an edited version of a speech she gave in Canberra last week.

Still fair dinkum

Toni Collette's representation of the free trade agreement as threatening Australia's "unique identity" has no basis in fact ("Being strong, smart and ourselves", Herald, June 28).

There is nothing in the FTA which will undermine Australia's ability to continue to nurture our culture, or ensure that Australian stories and voices are available on both existing and new forms of media.

The FTA is fully consistent with the importance of television in our culture. First, it ensures that future Australian governments can maintain the current local content requirements on free-to-air television however it is delivered.

In addition, the agreement allows a future Australian government to double and even triple the amount of local content on each TV network in a free-to-air multi-channel environment - a potentially huge amount of Australian content.

Furthermore, on pay TV, a future Australian government could double the expenditure quotas on all drama stations and impose new expenditure quotas on four additional categories of programming - documentaries, children's, the arts and educational.

Ms Collette is simply wrong when she says she understands the FTA means "the limited protection in place for Australian free-to-air television will not apply to new media". The FTA, in fact, guarantees Australia's right to intervene to ensure local content is available on other new media services that might emerge. This right applies to all types of interactive services that new media might bring in, irrespective of the platforms used to deliver them.

Mark Vaile, Minister for Trade, Canberra, June 29.

Implications of trade misunderstood

Mark Vaile appears not to understand the implications of the trade deal he negotiated with the US (Letters, June 30). He insists: "There is nothing in the FTA which will undermine Australia's ability to continue to nurture our culture, or ensure that Australian stories and voices are available on both existing and new forms of media." This is not true.

New media - an area growing exponentially and which in years to come may account for our greatest access to programming - has no local contact protection. There is, though, a clause that Mr Vaile has negotiated that suggests that in the future if there is little or no access to Australian culture via new media, the Government only then can raise this with the US and only then ask if it is willing to negotiate any increase. I think I know what the response would be.

As an actor who has been extremely fortunate to work in both the US and Australia, I am not anti-American. I am, however, pro-Australian.

American programming on pay TV in the US accounts for 98 per cent. Australian programming, by contrast, on Australian pay TV accounts for 3 per cent. Mark Vaile suggests under the free trade agreement an Australian government could potentially double expenditure quotas for Australian drama stations. There is no provision for this expenditure to be spent on new Australian programs. Quite simply, the money may be used to buy and screen programs already seen or to be seen on free-to-air TV.

The free trade agreement is a win-win for the US and will pass with flying patriotic colours through the US Senate. The Australian Government tells us the free trade agreement is good for Australian culture. It is not.

David Wenham, Sydney, June 30.



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