In December Australia signed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) the first multilateral treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization. For the first time, nations were invited to implement control measures covering such issues as health warnings, advertising, packaging and labelling, sales, and smuggling. They were also called upon to embrace policy measures designed to counter the global tobacco epidemic . The FCTC provided an impetus to the domestic policies of many countries with limited progress on tobacco control and also allowed for the transnational activities of tobacco corporations to be countered with global policy action. The FCTC has limited potential to further Australian domestic policy, which is in advance of that in most countries. If necessary, the Australian Government could call upon its "external affairs" to assert constitutional primacy over this policy area. However, this is unlikely in the context of close cooperation between various levels of government in Australia in establishing national tobacco control policies. Australian leadership was evident in WHO's formulation of the FCTC, having been nominated by the Western Pacific region as vice-chair of the Bureau for the Negotiating Body.
A reciprocal health care agreement with Norway was signed, further expanding the rights of Australian residents to immediate and necessary treatment in the national health systems of countries with which Australia has reciprocal treaties. These include New Zealand, UK, Italy, Malta, Holland, Sweden, Finland, and the Republic of Ireland. These arrangements are "cost neutral" and do not include costly accounting or administrative procedures. In terms of domestic policy, the continuing "internationalisation" of Medicare (pioneered by the Hawke Labor Party ministry at the time of Medicare's introduction) by the Liberal-National Party Coalition is paradoxical since local citizens are being encouraged to opt out of public hospital treatment through a rebate on private health insurance and penalties for higher income earners who do not insure privately. Whilst these agreements have cemented closer diplomatic ties, their potential benefits to international travellers, especially those subject to punitive insurance premiums or the refusal of insurance due to old age or infirmity, remain inadequately publicized. Treaties are also being negotiated with Denmark and Belgium.
Following years of negotiations and planning, a treaty was signed with New Zealand establishing a single joint therapeutic goods agency. This body, due to commence operations in 2005, will regulate prescription and retail drugs, therapeutic devices and also complementary medicines. It will replace the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration and its New Zealand counterpart. To a large extent, the two regulatory systems will have been integrated, although there are still areas of disagreement (e.g. policies on the advertising of PBS medicines) which will need to be negotiated. This joint agency creates a model in international health relations which other states could profitably emulate where they share common concerns and have similar health systems. In December 2002 the two countries finalized treaty arrangements establishing both a joint standards code and a joint statutory authority, Food Standards Australia New Zealand . These arrangements parallel bi-lateral developments for the joint regulation of food standards.
These developments have furthered Australian foreign policy concerned with establishing trans-Tasman free trade, commenced some two decades ago with the negotiation of the Closer Economic Relations agreement with New Zealand. The new regulatory arrangements have created a virtual trans-Tasman free market in food (subject to plant and animal quarantine considerations) and therapeutic drugs.
While not having the legal status of a treaty, for some years the Department of Health and Ageing has had memoranda of understanding with its counterparts in China, Indonesia, Thailand and Japan. In 2003 further activities were undertaken under the auspices of these agreements. During the state visit of China's president Hu Jinta, a plan of action was signed between the two health ministries. The Indonesian relationship continued with the inclusion of a health delegation to the Sixth Australia Indonesia Ministerial Forum in Jakarta in March, preceded by two rounds of meetings between officials of the Indonesian and Australian health departments. The Australia-Japan Partnership in Health and Family Services formed the basis for negotiations for joint research on mental health and an international conference on suicide prevention . In a related development, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade promoted aged care expertise as an export service through the Australia Japan Conference.
In the course of 2003 Australia finalized free trade agreements (in reality, preferential trade agreements) with Singapore and Thailand and continued negotiations with the USA . From the perspective of the Australian health industry, the agreement with Singapore offered tariff-free trade in pharmaceuticals and other therapeutic goods and the gradual removal of tariffs in the case of Thailand. All countries imposed reservations on free trade in the sensitive areas of health services, although traditional Thai massage exponents will be permitted to operate in Australia. Domestically, these agreements required intersectoral policy collaboration in the interests of health. Policy makers in the Department of Health needed to intensify their understanding of the dynamics of international trade, while those making foreign policy had to consider the health dimensions of ostensibly commercial arrangements.
The free trade agreement with the USA raised controversies about attempts to include the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) in concessions demanded by US negotiators. These issues have been outlined in the account of developments in the PBS elsewhere in this series of review articles.