Is Mark Latham on a winner with his FTA amendments? The early signs are positive, according to national affairs editor Christian Kerr.

As the sitting week in Canberra draw to a close – and despite the initial catcalls – more and more observers are wondering if Labor might just be on a winner with its FTA Plan B. The FTA goes over most people’s head – but it sure mattered to the commentariat and John Howard knew he had a good wedge issue.

Now, however, the buzz in the corridors is about the reverse wedge – a very complicated manoeuvre, but one that really impresses the judges if you pull it off. Can Labor get what has happened to health and Medicare under the Libs back on the agenda by its FTA Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme amendments.

Tuesday’s announcement by Mark Latham and Stephen Conroy – pro FTA but with amendments – seems to have stemmed from late night brainstorming by the Labor leader himself.

Some quick policy work before Shadow Cabinet and some good work in Caucus hasn’t left Labor with a compromise job – but with a stark choice to present to voters.

Labor has made a decision based on evidence – not subservience to the United States in all things trade and foreign policy orientated. They acknowledge that the FTA will bring economic benefits to Australia and is worth supporting – but with two important qualifications.

Labor wants voters to know that it wants the FTA, but also wants to guarantee the agreement involves no risks to the price of medication and access to pharmaceuticals or our cultural heritage. The first issue matters to voters – a lot. That’s a strong point of separation between the two parties that the punters can clearly recognise.

Voters know that the Government has nobbled Medicare. True, a massive binge by the Government – with their money – has lulled them into temporary torpor on the issue – but Mark Latham is now shaking them by the shoulder.

Yesterday we saw the Prime Minister struggling with the implications of Labor’s Plan B – supporting the FTA but with amendments, amendments that he just doesn’t seem to understand and that he won’t admit have been recommended in part by Government Senators on the FTA Bill Committee.

He’s the one who has been caught out. Now, it’s time for Latham to be Latham – and act boldly and swiftly.

Labor will move to make the enabling changes in the Senate. The Government will oppose them. The Greens probably won’t either as they prefer posing to delivering outcomes. The Democrats, however, will be on board, Brian Harradine and Meg Lees should back them, and Len Harris and Shayne Murphy will probably agree with Labor when it comes to the crunch.

If the Labor amendments are agreed to in the Senate, the current enabling legislation will be dead in the water – and voters will be able to have a say on it at the election.

They’ll have two clear choices. They can vote for Howard and his claims that there are no changes needed to protect PBS and cultural heritage – knowing his record on honesty.

Or they can vote for a Latham Labor government that has unequivocally committed to make the changes necessary to protect PBS and cultural heritage before the FTA comes into operation in 2005 – a government that will keep a keen and watchful eye on the operations of the FTA for any other unforeseen negatives that might arise.

They can vote for a silly old Prime Minister who lies and lies and lies – or that brave Mr Latham and clever Senator Conroy.