It’s been a big week in Canberra and here are the two pieces that are press gallery correspondent Hugo Kelly sent to subscribers as events unfolded around the FTA.

Chicken Little’s FTA comes home to roost

Subscriber email August 5

John Howard finishes today’s Parliamentary week twisting in the breeze. Mark Latham has seized the agenda, turning Free Trade defeat into an unlikely victory on his own chosen turf – protecting the right of Australians to cheap medicine.

Latham achieved this win because John Howard took his eye off the ball just when he thought he’d trapped him into caving in to the government’s FTA agenda.

Latham slipped in the reverse wedge, daring the government to agree to a couple of motherhood amendments that would change nothing, but look like concessions to Labor.

Howard blinked and bagged the PBS proposal within a couple of hours, thus casting himself as someone making policy on the run. Now his only choice is to either accede to Latham’s amendments or draft his own amendment, to the same effect, in a vain attempt to save face.

Either way it’s a sh*te sandwich, served raw or with hollandaise sauce. The image left in the public mind? John Howard is protecting the rights of multinational drug companies to bully the Government into higher drug prices.

Fresh from mauling Howard in Question Time today, Latham pulled an MPI to rub it in.

Latham’s tub-thumping MPI speech sounded suspiciously like an election address. Rehearsing the themes that are becoming clearer – thanks to the PM’s fumbling: “Labor leads – the Government follows.” That’s what happened over pollies’ super a few months ago. And it’s what’s happening over the FTA.

While the government is still arguing over the minutiae of patent law, the debate had moved on. It was now about Labor protecting cheap medicine for Australians. And the Government caving in to multinational drug companies.

For John Howard, this free trade debate began with a tricky start, and it’ll be a sticky end.

“The stated policy of the opposition is one we can’t accept,” he plaintively told the House. “We won’t support an amendment that imposes penalties for patent applications.”

“The proposed amendment will inhibit innovation, reduce new ideas, work against patent laws, cripple the entire intellectual property law system…” the Prime Minister told Parliament today. Not to mention bringing down pestilence from the skies.

“And what’s more, on the advice we have from five departments of state – it can’t be done.”

Surprise, surprise. Apparently these five departments – PMs, AG, Industry Science, Health and DFAT – all agree with the government that it’s just too hard to write legislation that protects Australia’s PBS system.

This is, of course, a government that likes to hear what it likes to hear.

It’s a wonder Howard couldn’t line up every single department to sing his tune. What does the Department of Sport think? Has anyone asked Education? Or Aboriginal Affairs? Time for some enterprising journo to lodge an FoI request.

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The doctors are revolting! And Latham cashes in
Subscriber email August 4

Crikey’s patent law expert, Hugo Kelly, reports from Parliament that John Howard has a Medicare-sized headache that will take lots of cheap drugs to fix:

Remember the days when the only thing doctors were interested in was money? Or whether to claim this year’s tax deduction on the organic olive grove in Noosa or the boutique winery in Tassie? Or the merits of the latest set of Ping platinum drivers?

Not any more. Our medicos are getting political.

Today, the AMA awoke from its slumber and boldly backed Labor in its fight to retain the integrity of the PBS in the FTA rumble with the Government. Yes, the AMA supports Labor as you can see here.

Not since Brendan Nelson gave up the gold stud earring in exchange for the Health portfolio in the Howard ministry has real politics stirred the profession.

Where did this political activism come from all of a sudden? Have they rediscovered ideology? Has someone at the AMA looked up Google and discovered Hippocrates was a medical ethicist, not a Greek island resort hosting the next proctology conference?

Or maybe it’s the placement of Kim Beazley’s former flak John Flannery as PR flunkie for the AMA that’s causing them to lurch to the (nominal) Left?

Whatever, today’s intervention by the doctors is a sign that Latham is on a winner in his strategy to smoke out a scare campaign painting the government as supporters of giant drug companies and high medicine prices. And Labor as saviours of Medicare and cheap medicine for the people.

And today’s first test of the new game plan was a chance for John Howard to fight back. He failed miserably.

For half an hour he and his ministers floundered as Latham and his health spokesman Julia Gillard pounded home their message. Not until Tony Abbott got up and took the attack to Labor did the government look anything but weak and indecisive.

It was becoming a theme. Even Mike Carlton wiped the floor with him during his interview on 2UE this morning:

Carlton: Labor will say that you’ve caved into the big American drug companies?

Howard: That is ridiculous because there’s nothing in the FTA that gives the big American companies anything…We’re willing to accommodate changes that are benign but we’re not going to accommodate a change that introduces an undesirable element into our patent laws…

Carlton: A lot of Australians I would suggest will think – look, this is a small sticking point. Latham is sticking up for cheaper medicine.

Howard: Yeah, but he’s not sticking up for cheaper medicine.

Carlton: Are you going to change at all? Have you got any room to budge?

Howard: Look Mike, I’ve explained my position. I can’t put it any better.

Quite. Howard had better come up with a new, improved line quick, before this headache turns septic.

Something that manages to counter Latham’s argument simply put in parliament today: “We know he’s under pressure from those multinationals. And so far, he’s supporting their side of the argument.”

How about it, PM. What have you got?

Meanwhile, Labor Senator Michael Forshaw scored a free sub as he regaled the Senate this afternoon with Crikey’s longish list of former Howard Government staffers now working for multi-national drug companies.

Latham: it’s all the way with USA for FTA – or Sweet FA
Subscriber email August 3

Mark Latham today completed his capitulation to the Government over the Free Trade Agreement, but the Labor leader threw in a fig leaf that might yet derail the agreement.

As cave-ins go, the package he successfully bulldozed through Caucus was elegant. While Iron Mark’s will – and the two-thirds majority of the party’s Right faction – prevailed, Caucus agreed on a solution that puts the onus on John Howard to compromise if he wants his precious treaty with George W Bush ratified by Parliament.

Latham announced that Labor will demand amendments to the FTA legislation to protect the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) against possible bogus patent applications, and to guarantee content rules for Australian TV and radio.

And how much does Latham want those amendments? “We’re going to fight like Kilkenny cats to be sure those amendments get through,” he told a top-heavy meeja pack this afternoon.

The Conroy amendments, he explained, would “stop bodgey applications for blue sky drug patents” and prevent “David Flint-style flunkies” from determining Australian content rules for local TV.

Witnessing this burst of Latham-speak were meeja heavyweights flown in from Sydney including The Australian’s Paul Kelly (you’re never too old to wear a fetching pink shirt) and The SMH’s politico-criminal profiler Damen Murphy – who graciously refrained from asking intimate questions about Mrs Latham’s primary school years.

Also flying in were The Age’s gun investigative reporters Mal Schmidtke and Gay Alcorn, responsible for the best Iron Mark profile so far:

Later, during Question Time, the PM answered everyone’s questions. Howard declared he would not support Latham’s PBS amendment, setting the scene for a FTA bunfight.

So will Latham unleash his Kilkenny cats? Are these pussies an election killer? Is the Latham solution a little too cute? And what of his bodgey new haircut, long and wavey at the back and starting to resemble a mini-mullet?

All will be revealed in the days and weeks ahead.