For the last 20 years the global trade and investment regime has been used to institutionalise neoliberalism, establishing international rules and norms through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and bilateral trade and investment agreements that increase the power of global corporations while undermining human rights and the environment.
Trade rules now impact on most aspects of the economy and can reduce environmental protections, undermine labour standards and have implications for the way our public services are managed. Recent agreements, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) now in force and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) that Australia is currently negotiating with 15 countries in the Asia Pacific region, are more focused on establishing a regulatory framework that suits global corporations than regulating trade. These agreements are negotiated in secret with texts not released until after the deal has been signed. In Australia, Parliament only votes on the implementing legislation, not the whole agreement. These agreements include provisions that would not survive public and parliamentary scrutiny, like stronger monopolies on medicines, which delay the availability of cheaper medicines. They also open up services to privatisation, deregulate capital flows and give global corporations the right to sue governments for policy decisions that undermine their profits (known as Investor-State Dispute Settlement or ISDS). They pose a significant threat to our democracy.
In the context of persistent global poverty, rising inequality and the imminent climate crisis it is clear that we need to rebalance the global economic system so it is oriented towards social prosperity rather than private profit. This requires a trade and investment system that is transparent and democratic, complies with international human rights and environmental law, preserves government’s power to regulate in the public interest, and redresses the power imbalance between corporations and workers. So, with the federal election announced for May 18, how do our political parties rate on trade policy?
The Coalition position: More of the same
The LNP Coalition is a strong proponent of neoliberal trade policy and its track record on trade is clear. Since forming government in 2013, the LNP has developed several trade agreements in secret, opposing the public release and independent evaluation of trade agreement texts before signing. They have consistently supported the inclusion of ISDS in trade and investment agreements, which gives foreign investors the right to sue governments. They signed onto the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, in the face of widespread criticism in Australia and internationally, as well as bilateral agreements with Peru, Indonesia and Hong Kong, all of which include ISDS provisions. They have supported provisions in the TPP-11 and other agreements that entrench medicine and copyright monopolies, and trade in services chapters that freeze the regulation of services at existing levels, which can prevent the re-regulation of essential services and restrict government’s ability to respond in the case of privatisation failure. The Coalition has refused to undertake independent economic, environmental, health or other public interest assessments of trade agreements. While the TPP-11 does at least contain labour and environment chapters, they are not fully enforceable. The Coalition has not insisted on any labour rights or environmental standards in other recent agreements. Further, they have supported the inclusion of provisions in the TPP-11 and other agreements that enable corporations to increase the number of vulnerable temporary workers by removing the requirement to test if local workers are available. Research shows that these workers are often badly exploited because they are tied to one employer and can be deported if they lose the job.
The Labor alternative: moving in the right direction but the test will be whether policy is implemented
After a fierce internal debate, Labor MPs voted for the implementation of the TPP-11 in October 2018. This resulted in a backlash from its supporters because the TPP-11 contained ISDS and other provisions contrary to Labor’s policy.
Labor adopted a stronger trade policy in December 2018 that commits them to develop trade agreements that are more aligned with Australia’s commitments under international human rights and environmental law. Under the current policy, Labor has said it will publicly release trade agreement texts and undertake independent economic and social evaluation of these texts prior to signing the agreements. They have committed to exclude ISDS from new trade agreements and to renegotiate existing agreements to remove ISDS. They oppose the inclusion of provisions that strengthen medicine and copyright monopolies and enable the deregulation of essential services. They support the inclusion of enforceable labour rights and environmental standards in trade agreements and oppose provisions that increase the number of vulnerable temporary migrant workers by removal of labour market testing. Labor has proposed legislation that would bring these commitments into law, should they win government. But given their voting record on the TPP-11 and with the RCEP negotiation ongoing, it will take strong community pressure to ensure that these policies are implemented.
The Greens and Centre Alliance: stronger support for a fairer trade system
Moving beyond the major parties, The Greens have consistently supported a fairer trade system, as have the Centre Alliance more recently. Both oppose the inclusion of ISDS in trade agreements and oppose provisions that extend medicine and copyright monopolies, enable the deregulation of essential services and increase the exploitation of temporary migrant workers through the removal of labour market testing. They support the inclusion of enforceable labour rights and environmental standards in trade agreements and are in favour of the public release and independent evaluation of trade agreement texts before signing. Both parties have translated these policies into action and voted against the implementing legislation for the TPP-11.
Trade and investment policy may not be a big-ticket item this election campaign, but for those of us committed to building a fair and sustainable society it should be. The table below provides a summary of the main political parties’ trade policies.
Sophie Hardefeldt is a Trade Analyst and Campaigner at the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET). AFTNET is a network of 60 community organisation calling for fair trade based on human rights, labour rights and environmental sustainability. http://aftinet.org.au/cms/.