The Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium in Washington could be a cathedral. Gilded architraves top off ornate columns that run the 20m from floor to ceiling. Dangling bronze lamps radiate a classical light. Last week this building played host to a wedding of a sorts. Australia joined with the United States in holy free-trade matrimony.
Trade Minister Mark Vaile entered the chapel in a dapper business suit with a gold tie. Bob Zoellick, the US Trade Representative, had a bright green tie. Who could miss the unofficial colours of Australia?
In place of flowers, 10 alternating Australian and American flags bedecked the stage. Red, white and blue. The invitation read "Partners in Prosperity". Weddings always make me cry.
This political wedding was a perfect fit for the conservative leaders in both countries.
For Australia, it reaffirms the government's commitment to ever-closer ties with the US.
For the US, it demonstrates the value of free trade without the complexities of exposing its fragile domestic markets to full-scale international competition.
Meanwhile, back at the reception, the congregation divided according to the bridal party. Government and business representatives to the left, invited guests and the media on the right. The congressional lobbyists were crucial to the deal's success. Without support from members Cal Dooley and Jennifer Dunn, Australia's efforts might have come to nothing.
Yet despite such prominent support, as it stands, there is no guarantee that this deal will pass the US Senate. Trade issues have become a critical area of contention in the upcoming presidential election. The presumptive Democratic nominee, John Kerry, the man to challenge George W. Bush in November, declared on Monday that he is yet to make up his mind on the deal with Australia.
The key issue for judging trade deals in Washington at the moment is labour standards. Kerry and the Democrats are trying to attract those voters concerned about the loss of US jobs overseas, thanks to cheaper employment costs. Australia, which has even more stringent employment standards than the US, avoids much of this debate. Except that a number of free-trade agreements are before Congress all at once, including a controversial deal with a group of Central American countries. Australia's FTA might stall as a consequence.
Prime Minister John Howard plans a visit to Washington in early June. No doubt he will talk with local powerbrokers, trying to get the FTA passed before the congressional recess and the presidential election. Obviously, his office senses the protectionist mood in Washington and the threat that a decision on the deal might not come until after the presidential election in November. This delay, if it happened, would be bad for Howard's own electoral prospects. His campaign is constructed largely on the notion of his good relations with Australia's alliance partner.
Meanwhile, back at the signing, two elderly US senators reached for their chest as Advance Australia Fair rasped over the loud speaker. Was the moment too much, were they going to collapse at the altar? But no, the Secretary of Agriculture realised the mistake and dropped the protectionist hand covering her heart. Only to bring it straight back up again for The Star-Spangled Banner. More symbolism, surely?
Nevertheless, the dowry is already paid. The groom peppered his speech with coy acknowledgments. Australians and Americans have been willing to stand up for that special belief in humankind - that is what has drawn us together, arm in arm, to fight together, to suffer together, and even to die together. Most recently, of course, in Iraq.
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