By Boyd Champness

AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister John Howard made an unprecedented and scathing attack on US President Bill Clinton last week following his decision to impose tariffs on Australasian lamb imports.

Australias rage and Mr Howards comments over the decision should set the scene for a tense and heated debate on trade when the two leaders meet in Washington tomorrow (Tuesday 13 July).

The White House announced last week that it would impose tariffs – ranging from 9% on existing imports and increasing to 40% on additional imports – on Australian and New Zealand lamb starting from today (Monday 12 July) to protect American sheep farmers.

The White House said: “The package of import relief and domestic assistance has been carefully crafted to help our lamb industry achieve sustained competitiveness while respecting out international trade obligations.”

But Mr Howard made no effort to conceal his anger, telling The Age newspaper that Mr Clintons decision would encourage “recalcitrant” nations towards protectionism.

“The Americans are preaching open trade, but by this decision they are practising the very reverse,” he said, adding that the decision “sent an appalling signal to those around the world who want to backslide away from more open trade”.

He said Australias hard-working lamb producers had won the US market fair and square and were now being hit by the imposition of “punitive and totally unjustifiable restrictions”.

Mr Howard, who ruled out retaliatory action, said he would make his feelings known to Mr Clinton when the pair meet tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government has promised to pick up almost half the sheep farmers costs from the US action, and vowed to challenge it under the rules of the World Trade Organisation, according to the report in The Age.

Trade Minister Tim Fischer also told the paper the Federal Government would pay half of the annual levy on sheep farmers for research and development for the next two years, saving farmers about $5 million.

The National Farmers Federation has estimated the cost of the US tariffs at $10-$15 million.

The US based its action on long-established WTO rules allowing countries to protect their industries against fast growing imports. However, Australian officials believe the US has exposed itself to a WTO challenge by “failing to tick all the boxes”, the paper said.