The Courier-Mail

Trade deal should not be a po­lit­i­cal wedge


WHEN for­mer prime min­is­ter Bob Hawke calls out his own La­bor Party and the union move­ment for talk­ing ut­ter rub­bish, we should take heed.

Mr Hawke was the prime min­is­ter who, along with Paul Keat­ing, ush­ered in some of the most far-reach­ing eco­nomic re­forms Aus­tralia has seen. With his for­ward think­ing Cab­i­net mem­bers – such as in­dus­try min­is­ter John But­ton – Mr Hawke opened Aus­tralia’s econ­omy to the world through dereg­u­la­tion of the labour mar­kets, com­pe­ti­tion pol­icy, tar­iff re­duc­tions, bank­ing re­form and the in­tro­duc­tion of a float­ing cur­rency. To­day we are all the richer for it.

That style of eco­nomic vi­sion would ap­pear to­tally lost on the mod­ern La­bor Party, which ap­pears wed­ded more to the du­bi­ous short-term lever­age it can screw out of pop­ulist pol­i­tics than any com­mit­ment to the prin­ci­ples of ra­tio­nal pol­icy.

For a party born of the trade union move­ment and which os­ten­si­bly stands for the in­ter­ests of work­ing Aus­tralians, La­bor’s op­po­si­tion to the China Free Trade Agree­ment is as de­struc­tive as it is disin­gen­u­ous.

The scare cam­paign from sec­tions of the union move­ment that ba­si­cally ar­gues the FTA will mean low-paid and un­der-skilled Chi­nese work­ers steal­ing Aus­tralian jobs is, as Trade Min­is­ter An­drew Robb has ar­gued, merely ap­peal­ing to the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor of Aus­tralian xeno­pho­bia.

Trade deals are com­plex and mul­ti­lay­ered agree­ments. This one has been some nine years in the mak­ing, span­ning four par­lia­ments and four dif­fer­ent prime min­is­ters. To seize on an iso­lated line in thou­sands of pages of doc­u­ments – de­spite gov­ern­ment guar­an­tees to the con­trary – as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for stalling the process even fur­ther just smacks of eco­nomic van­dal­ism. It is redo­lent of a party more in­ter­ested in keep­ing faith with its union pay­mas­ters and scor­ing some cheap points than it is in hon­our­ing its stated com­mit­ment to a mod­ern and open econ­omy.

As Op­po­si­tion Leader Bill Shorten said at the Queens­land ALP con­fer­ence yesterday: “We un­der­stand that open mar­kets are the best way of achiev­ing eco­nomic growth and eco­nomic growth is the best way to cre­ate good jobs. We un­der­stand that more trade with our re­gion is the path­way to a high-skill, high-wage fu­ture for all Aus­tralians, and if we get this agree­ment with China right, ev­ery­one from Aus­tralian farm­ers to our ser­vices sec­tor and new ad­vanced man­u­fac­tur­ing will ben­e­fit.”

If that is the case then Mr Shorten should heed Mr Hawke’s ad­vice – and in­deed that of some of his own se­nior front­benchers – and work with the Gov­ern­ment to pro­duce an out­come that will ben­e­fit all Aus­tralians, rather than play­ing tawdry pol­i­tics with our fu­ture.

“The party”, Mr Hawke ar­gued, “must not go back­wards on this is­sue – the party and the trade union move­ment. Talk of op­pos­ing it is just ab­so­lutely against Aus­tralia’s best in­ter­ests.”

Mr Shorten is jus­ti­fied in ar­gu­ing that the fine print of any agree­ment must not con­tain clauses which dam­age our na­tional in­ter­est – be that in ar­eas of mi­grant work­ers or in­vestor-state dis­pute set­tle­ment. No­body, least of all a gov­ern­ment fac­ing a pre­car­i­ous elec­tion in 12 months, wants to sign a deal that un­der­mines Aus­tralian jobs or sovereignt­y.

Sadly though it ap­pears that Mr Shorten is more wed­ded to the idea of how the China FTA might be used as a po­lit­i­cal wedge, rather than ac­tu­ally work­ing to fi­nalise an agree­ment that La­bor also spent six years ne­go­ti­at­ing, for the good of the coun­try.

True lead­er­ship – as Mr Hawke demon­strated with labour mar­ket re­forms – can be as much about con­vinc­ing vested in­ter­ests and fac­tions on your own side of pol­i­tics as it is about play­ing to the wider public sphere.

With the China FTA it would ap­pear Mr Shorten, de­spite his plat­i­tudes, has caved in com­pletely.

If La­bor was re­ally about jobs and eco­nomic growth, and not just the busi­ness of win­ning of­fice, it would back the China FTA.

As it stands Mr Shorten is selling Aus­tralia short.

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