Greater scrutiny will produce solid trade agreements

Published on Monday, 22 July 2019 11:56

Members should not approach the shaping of Australia's trade future by declaring some kind of blanket support in advance of any particular agreement. That would be a failure of our responsibility as parliamentarians. The last thing we need is mindless cheerleading in relation to matters that are as important and complicated as trade.

Mr Wilson (11:56am) — I am glad for the opportunity to speak on the motion and I thank the member for Fairfax for bringing it. There is no dispute that trade is vital to Australia; we're a trading nation and it is core to our economic wellbeing. It plays an important role in our global and regional engagement. Fair and free trade is in our national interest, is consistent with our values and, done well, should be a tide that lifts all boats. It's widely acknowledged that trade has a key role to play in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. That's why Australian Labor has always favoured the pursuit of multilateral arrangements rather than being content with the endless 'Ring a Ring o' Rosie' of bilateral preferential trade agreements.

In any case, members should not approach the shaping of Australia's trade future by declaring some kind of blanket support in advance of any particular agreement. That would be a failure of our responsibility as parliamentarians. The last thing we need is mindless cheerleading in relation to matters that are as important and complicated as trade. It was a privilege to be a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties in the 45th Parliament and to consider trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, PACER Plus and the Peru-Australia Free Trade Agreement. In the course of those inquiries the JSCOT heard from business, industry, agricultural and civil society stakeholders who called for closer involvement in trade negotiations, as happens in other countries. They called for better information about the opportunities provided by new trade arrangements, especially for small and medium-sized businesses, with more resources to facilitate their participation in trade.

There was also a strong consensus from trade experts in favour of independent analysis and modelling of trade agreements, their impacts and their benefits. Indeed, three separate reports from the JSCOT recommended that government adopt the practice of commissioning such independent analysis. So far the government keeps refusing to do so. On all these matters there is room for Australia to do trade agreements much better. On that basis I call on members to support these kinds of improvements so that we get higher quality trade agreements and are better placed to assess them, which is our job.

When it comes to specific trade agreements I hope it's not deeply shocking to observe that some are not as good as they could be. All of them include provisions that might have been stronger. Many of them nowadays include provisions that probably shouldn't be there at all. That's not least because these days such agreements are not just about trade but also about investment rules, intellectual property and even labour market access arrangements. Not all countries take that approach. The United States, for example, does not make foreign labour access concessions through trade agreements. These other matters have nothing to do with tariffs and quotas and do raise legitimate issues of concern. Under the original TPP, Australia had agreed to provide an effective extension of the monopoly rights for biologic medicines from five to eight years. That could have cost the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme hundreds of millions of dollars.

There is also broad concern in the Australian community about investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS, provisions—clauses that give foreign companies the right to take action against governments through international tribunals of dubious integrity. Tobacco company Philip Morris used an ISDS in an investment treaty between Australia and Hong Kong to sue our government over plain-packaging reforms. That legal action cost Australian taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and only failed because of a jurisdictional issue. If not for that technicality, Philip Morris may well have interfered with one of the most important public health reforms of recent times. As it was, New Zealand didn't proceed with their own plain-packaging laws for three years while awaiting the outcome of the Philip Morris case.

In other countries there have been successful challenges against environmental and workplace laws. ISDS has become a mechanism by which multinationals protect their profits by interfering in the sovereign capacity to govern and make policy for the public good. That's why Labor doesn't support the inclusion of ISDS in trade agreements. This government shouldn't either.

The motion does refer to jobs. Trade agreements don't automatically produce jobs. In a relatively high-wage, developed economy like ours, trade can deliver economic growth while still causing jobs to shift elsewhere. Members might reflect on the analysis commissioned by the World Bank on the original TPP, which estimated Australia would lose 38,000 full-time jobs. They should also remember that this government's been using trade agreements to weaken our temporary foreign labour arrangements, allowing contractual service providers to bypass labour market testing provisions. No-one in this place should rush to become a cheerleader in advance of trade agreements. Members would do well to consider the non-trade aspects of recent agreements and ask themselves whether they're really in the national interest.

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AUTHORISED BY JOSH WILSON
AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY CANBERRA
© COPYRIGHT 2019 JOSH WILSON MP