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.