OPINION: THE opposition to free (more correctly, freer) trade deals is getting much noisier. How destructive this will turn out to be is an open question. Much of it can be put down to opportunistic rhetoric, devoid of any realistic threat as well as any real logic.
But the Abbott government is still belatedly realising a more consistent and concerted selling effort is needed – even if most of its front bench seem more consumed by the future of Bronwyn Bishop than the future of free trade.
The gathering storm of complaints ranges from predictable outrage among Queensland cane growers afraid of missing out on the US sugar market to even more predictable muscle-flexing from the unions about threats to jobs. Then there are the vague community concerns about such issues as the ability of foreign companies to sue the Australian government or worries about the cost of pharmaceuticals.
A coincidence of timing means a union campaign against the free trade agreement with China has ramped up, complete with emotive and dishonest advertising, just when Trade Minister Andrew Robb is in Hawaii for final negotiations over the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal involving 11 other countries although not China.
It’s still uncertain whether a TPP deal can be done given the level of angst from various interest groups in various countries. For all the talk about this being a twenty first century agreement for a global economy increasingly based on trade in services and intellectual property, the most intense antagonism is usually for the most old fashioned of protectionist reasons – agriculture.
The Canadians, for example, are not about to open their heavily protected dairy sector ahead of a close election this October. The real political issue is how much that timing and detail affecting Canada can be fudged.
Australian cane growers also won’t get the access they want to the US market and will have to be content with a modest improvement in tonnage – no matter how much the Nationals fulminate.
But nor will Australia, as well as others, agree to extending the patent protection for US drug companies out to more than five years. Robb will also have to keep carefully explaining the nuances of investor state dispute resolution, including why this protects companies investing overseas but deliberately allows the Australian government to exclude policy areas like public health and the environment for its own purposes.
That’s still assuming all those trade ministers can now nut out an acceptable agreement given the political timetables of various countries, including the US.
For Australia, however, the key agreement with its most important trading partner in China is already supposed to be finalised.
It can only be unravelled if Labor can manage to alter some of the relatively minor enabling legislation in the Senate over the next couple of months.
It’s an outcome that remains unlikely despite the furore being whipped up.