Many fear a pact will make Australia the '51st state of the US' Australia is in danger of becoming 'the 51st state of the United States' if a proposed free-trade agreement goes ahead with Washington, opposition politicians and unionists have warned. The warning came as Australian and US trade negotiators began a week of crucial negotiations which they hope will see the pact sealed by the end of the year. Prime Minister John Howard pledged his commitment to the proposed deal in talks with President George W. Bush during the US leader's fleeting visit to Australia last week. Opposition to the trade pact is growing, however, and there are fears it will signal the end of Australia's pharmaceutical benefits scheme, which guarantees cheap, subsidised medicinal drugs. US drugs manufacturers claim the scheme keeps drug prices low and is therefore in need of reform. There is also deep scepticism in Australia as to whether the US government will subject American farmers to genuine competition with Mr Bush gearing up for next year's presidential election. In addition, many Australians are nervous about Washington's push to lift restrictions on foreign investment, most controversially surrounding media ownership. Around 200 protesters, many of them unionists, marched on parliament in Canberra on Monday, claiming the free-trade deal would cost Australia jobs and flood the country with American-made films and television programmes. Andrew Bartlett, the leader of the Democrats, told the rally that even Washington had assessed the economic gain from a free-trade deal with Australia as amounting to no more than the gross domestic product of the state of Pennsylvania. 'No wonder so many people are afraid we're simply becoming the 51st state of the US,' he said. Union leader Doug Cameron said: 'We will fight, we will campaign, we will not be intimidated and we will not be silenced. Together we will win. We will not stand back and let the government trade away tens of thousands of jobs and our economic independence and future.' The deal being offered by US negotiators would result in only 20 per cent of American farm products being initially open to competition from Australia and excludes vital areas of Australian interest such as beef, sugar, cotton and dairy products. American officials have indicated that Australian farmers would be granted access to those areas much more gradually, in phases lasting 10 years or more. Australia's chief negotiator, Stephen Deady, indicated that such a lengthy lead time was not good enough. 'We are at a critical phase in the negotiations. We need to see some significant improvement ... in access for key Australian products - sugar, beef and dairy in particular, but also a range of other products,' he said. Australia is pushing for free access, without tariffs, for all agricultural exports. Even if greater access is granted by Washington, there are questions over whether Australian farmers can compete with their heavily subsidised US counterparts. US negotiators say the pharmaceutical protection scheme is 'an issue' but insist they do not want to see it dismantled. 'We're still very much trying to find a way to address the issue in a way that's sensitive to Australian concerns and US objectives,' said Ralph Ives, the head of the 50-strong American trade team.