Farmers Rein in Australia Trade bid.(BUSINESS)

Article excerpt

Byline: Carter Dougherty, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Australia's bid for a free-trade agreement is moving on a slow track, even though Prime Minister John Howard's government is a staunch anti-terror ally and a key supporter of the United States in global trade talks.

The Bush administration wants to resolve small but persistent disputes over American agricultural exports before contemplating a full-fledged pact, a position that pleases the powerful American farm lobby but frustrates the Australians.

The National Security Strategy released by the administration last week cites Australia as one of the "principal focal points" for striking free-trade deals. But U.S. Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick is focusing on resolving several smaller commercial tiffs that have marred relations with Australia before talking free trade.

"There's a lot of backing in the United States and Australia for an agreement, but it's important to get off on the right foot," Mr. Zoellick told reporters last week.

In July, Australia lifted a 10-year-old ban on American grapes that was based on claims that the fruit might spread disease.

Now, officials from both sides are trying to work through a separate wrangle over pork shipments.

Since last year, Mr. Howard's government has campaigned for a trade agreement with the United States. He noted that Australian soldiers are in Afghanistan alongside Americans in the war against terrorism.

"A comprehensive free-trade agreement, by boosting trade and investment between us, would add a stronger economic dimension to the very deep bilateral ties that are already there," he said in a June 12 address to the U.S. Congress.

Nevertheless, Mr. Howard has been unable to extract a clear commitment from the United States that real negotiations can begin once the smaller disputes are settled.

"We want to do this," said a U.S. trade official requesting anonymity. …