Trade agreements must be in national interest

Published on Mon 5 September 2022 1:11pm

We’re a trading nation in Australia. We’re hugely dependent on trade, and our economic, social and environmental wellbeing will be shaped by how we participate in and influence the global trading system, but we should do so according to the principles of fair, sustainable and free trade, because it’s in our national, economic, strategic, environmental and security interests to do so.

Mr Wilson (1:11pm) – I’m very happy to contribute to this debate on the motion by the member for Page about Australia’s approach to trade. Labor has always supported fair and free trade, because, where trade is fair and unobstructed, with proper consideration given to social and environmental impacts, all countries can benefit. How they benefit and, more precisely, who benefits are questions with less clear answers. Certainly, there’s evidence that, while trade liberalisation delivers aggregate economic growth, it can exacerbate inequality.

Without question, trade is complex, and it’s not much good if our conversation about trade—or the conversation in the press or the wider community—is reduced to a fingerpainting version of the reality. The notice of motion lists the number of trade agreements settled under the former government, and it cites the coverage of tariff-free access as a proportion of Australia’s trade. That’s all well and good—and, of course, Labor was supportive of the pursuit of these agreements—but it doesn’t really go to the detail and quality of the coalition’s effort when it comes to their management of Australia’s trading relationships as a whole. Needless to say, trade agreements are not worth much where their details are ignored and are otherwise unenforceable. Nor are trade agreements worth much when the absence of effective domestic trade facilitation means that Australian companies, especially small and medium enterprises, are not able to take advantage of the opportunities that they create.

Not surprisingly, this motion doesn’t acknowledge, for example, that the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement has been virtually useless in preventing the geoeconomic coercion that we’ve experienced in recent years. It doesn’t acknowledge that the PACER Plus agreement between Australia, New Zealand and a number of Pacific island nations was settled in a form that Papua New Guinea and Fiji, the two largest Pacific island economies, refused to sign. That was unfortunate. But it was in keeping with the former government’s mismanagement of our relationship with Pacific island nations, and we’ve seen some of the consequences of that mismanagement. It doesn’t acknowledge that the Morrison government was quite happy to see, under the first version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an extension of monopoly rights granted to American pharmaceutical companies in respect of biologic medicines that would likely have increased costs to the PBS by several hundred million dollars each and every year.

Trade agreements these days cover a much wider range of matters than just tariffs and market quotas. Indeed, they often involve concessions that are the very opposite of free trade, like the example that I’ve just given: extending monopoly rights to big pharmaceutical companies in the United States, to the detriment of our bottom line. Under the previous government, such concessions also included the preparedness to do away with labour market testing for some categories of temporary foreign workers, and the preparedness to do away with actual skills testing in critical areas like the electrical trades. The coalition government was also prepared to put at risk Australia’s capacity to regulate in the best interests of the Australian community, by agreeing to allow large foreign companies to challenge our laws through questionable international tribunals under so-called ISDS provisions. We saw that occur, at a significant cost—millions and millions and millions of dollars, and years of delay—in relation to our laws for plain packaging of tobacco.

The motion, and some of the speakers to the motion, oddly call for the urgent ratification of the trade agreements that are under consideration—the Australia-United Kingdom Free Trade Agreement and the Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement. I expect members know—they certainly should know—that those agreements are currently being considered in a proper and timely way by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. It’s an important matter of parliamentary process and good governance that the JSCOT inquiry, with its opportunity for submissions and public hearings, including from the National Farmers Federation and all sorts of different sectoral stakeholders, be allowed to occur without undue haste, let alone the presumption that it’s some kind of rubber stamp. It is not. Those opposite should remember that, when the former coalition government was rushing headlong into an extradition treaty with China, it was the JSCOT—and, more specifically, Labor’s dissenting report—that urged caution.

It’s also worth taking this opportunity to note that the JSCOT process with respect to trade agreements can and should be strengthened. That was the unanimous conclusion of the committee report tabled in the last parliament. It made five recommendations, including, crucially, calling for the independent analysis of the economic benefits and impacts of trade agreements and for a sensibly structured means by which key stakeholders—again, primary producers and others—can have better midstream access to the agreement-negotiating process. As in many areas of life, trade agreement making is a question not just of quantity, as is referred to in the motion, but of quality. We’re a trading nation in Australia. We’re hugely dependent on trade, and our economic, social and environmental wellbeing will be shaped by how we participate in and influence the global trading system, but we should do so according to the principles of fair, sustainable and free trade, because it’s in our national, economic, strategic, environmental and security interests to do so.

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