As with all recent trade deals, the newly agreed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is viewed with both jubilation and horror by various quarters of Australian politics.
The agreement is a major step forward in freer international trade within our region, but is likely to be attacked in the months ahead by some environmental groups, unions, farmers and sections of the small business lobby.
To many, such an agreement facilitates the kind of corporate globalisation that sparked the ‘Occupy’ movement in the years of the global financial crisis.
The fear is that mobile global capital, particularly via US-directed corporations, will extract greater profits, but without heed to the interests of denizens of the other 11 signatory nations – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Chile, Peru and Vietnam.
That is a real possibility, and those arguments must be listened to carefully in the months ahead before ratification by the Australian parliament.
However, until those dangers are spelled out, credit must be given to all parties involved in the negotiations for clinching a deal at all.
Specifically, in an era of rampant bi-lateral deal making, many commentators believed until recently that no such multilateral agreement could be forged.
The Abbott government concluded several such details, with Japan, Korea and (almost) with China, and was lauded by some media commentators for ‘break-throughs’ that would create thousands of jobs.
Such praise was premature. Those so-called ‘free trade agreements’, because they were bilateral, merely extended zones of protection.
Economists refer to such deals not as ‘free trade deals’ but as ‘preferential trade deals’.
And even those deals weren’t ‘free’.
For instance, when the Japan FTA was inked in early 2014, it was heavily criticised by Labor’s trade spokeswoman, Penny Wong, for the tiny concessions it made on beef exports.
Wong said at the time that the deal “locks in high tariffs on Australian beef for nearly two decades, that’s what it does.”
“And the reduction that comes is very slow and stops with very high tariffs – still up to nearly 20 per cent in 18 years time. That isn’t free trade, and it’s not the sort of market access beef producers in Australia were expecting”.
Moreover, many saw such side-deals as an obstacle to the wider TPP deal.
The US National Cattlemen’s Beef Association slammed the Australia-Japan deal in 2014, saying: “This development only pushes the high-standing ideals of TPP further out of reach for all countries involved, and it is not a move that US beef producers can support.
“The TPP has been referred to as a twenty-first century agreement, but this bilateral agreement is from the twentieth-century playbook, and will not serve to foster open trade and certainly will not benefit consumers and producers globally.”
This is the context against which the TPP deal should be viewed.
It is a huge development in liberalising global trade, and goes a long way to replacing attempts via the old General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and more recent World Trade Organisation process, to multilaterally reduce trade barriers.
The fact that it has happened on incoming PM Malcolm Turnbull’s watch is pure luck, but he is right to welcome it as a “a gigantic foundation stone for our future prosperity”.
That is not to minimise the risks that will be teased out by various lobby groups in the months ahead. The New Daily will examine them on their merits.
However, what we can say about the TPP is that it is a genuine attempt at freeing up trade, and puts previous bilateral deals in the shadow.
In a 2010 report, the Productivity Commission belled the cat on bilateral FTAs, saying it “found little evidence that Australia’s recent bilateral agreements had provided substantial commercial benefits. The main factors that influence decisions to do business in other countries are likely to lie outside the scope of such agreements. The study concluded that while preferential trade agreements could increase national income, the net effect is likely to be modest”.
Well the potential of the TPP is far greater than that, and although China has so far resisted calls to join the negotiation, the deal’s “open architecture” means that door is still very much open.
With the US economy climbing back to strength, and China’s teetering on the edge of a bleaker future, that looks more likely than ever.
For now, the TPP is genuinely good trade news – refreshing after too much hot air on the subject in the past few years.