A wonderful example of seeming like a good idea at the time. The signing this week by Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith of the “Australia-European Community Agreement on Trade in Wine” with European Union Commissioner for Agriculture Mariann Fischer Boel finally concludes one of the silliest bits of diplomatic pressure ever applied by European nations.

Back in the early 1990s when Australia was a miniscule player in the world of wine the French got all high and mighty about protecting what they saw as geographical names which Australian producers were putting on labels in a generic fashion. Under the threat of having sales in Europe banned completely, Australia in 1994 was forced to accept that it could no longer use words like champagne and burgundy and hermitage. So began the disappearance of such established favourites as Houghton’s and Lindemans White Burgundy and the introduction of varietal labelling with wines named after the grapes they were made from.

And, surprise, surprise, the consumers in Britain fell in love with the change as they discovered that an Australian shiraz was full of delightful fruit flavours and not at all like the tight and tired French Cote du Rhones they had previously been named after. As the graph of the country’s wine exports shows, the start of the boom which sees Australia now the major player in the British market coincided with the labelling change.

This week’s agreement signed by Messrs Smith and Fischer Boel now extends the list of names that Australia agrees not to use to cover fortifieds like port and sherry and tokay. When the local industry decides on its new descriptions there has to be every chance that the end result will be the same again.

Time for a little brinkmanship. Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard has proved herself to be a skilled but tough negotiator to have got her new industrial relations legislation this far without any major upheavals in trade union ranks and with a broad if somewhat reluctant blessing from most of the major employer organisations. Now she faces the challenge of steering her proposals through a Senate where the Liberal and National parties appear intent on playing a spoiling game.

With previous pieces of legislation where the Opposition has found the support of a minor party to force amendments, the Government has shown a willingness to compromise and accept something rather than nothing but this time things could be different.

The promise to change the industrial laws passed by the Howard Government was a major factor in Labor’s victory. The Government would love to keep alive the fear that the election of a Malcolm Turnbull led government would see a return to even more draconian curbs on the ability of workers to negotiate fair terms with employers. Making the Opposition actually defeat the whole of the Gillard proposal at least a first time around would be an excellent way of doing just that. 

A Canadian constitutional crisis. It was barely six weeks ago that the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper returned to office with an increased number of his Conservative Party members but still without an overall majority. It was hardly the position of strength from which to upset the three other major parties, which between them can muster a parliamentary majority, by promising to remove taxpayer provided election funding.

But that is what Mr Harper did and now his miscalcuation has brought the Liberals, NDP and the Bloc Qubecois into an unlikely coalition prepared to pass a no confidence motion on Monday and seize power. What makes it an unlikely coalition is the commitment of the Bloc to the smashing of Canada and the creation of a separate country of Quebec. And if that is not enough to make such a tripartite government unusual its initial leader would the Liberal Leader Stephane Dion who was so resoundingly rejected by voters that he has already announced he will step down from the leadership when a Party convention to choose his successor can be held in May.

The Conservatives are pleading that they should at least be able to continue until they bring down a budget in January and there is speculation that Parliament will be prorogued so the no confidence motion can be avoided. The Canadian Governor General, Michaelle Jean, is cutting short a visit to Europe to deal with what is emerging as a major constitutional crisis.

Peter Fray

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