When Bill Shorten on camera announced that Labor would support the TPP he looked like a schoolboy telling the teacher that the dog ate his homework. Bill knew his excuse was phony. Will the TPP be the issue that finally forces the ALP back to the labour movement or will the Party fudge its way into office as it has done throughout the 30 years of neoliberal ascendancy?
The precursor of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was an ugly monstrosity devised in France and called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). This was beaten off in the 1990s by an international grassroots campaign. I played a bit part at the Australian end of the fight but it was the Canadians who slew the dragon. They were magnificent but we all knew the monster would re-appear, like the repulsive giant spider in Sigourney Weaver’s nightmares.
There is now a substantial body of literature on the free trade agreements of recent decades written by people who know what they are talking about and if there is a consensus it is that the agreements are not about trade. Marco Polo when he set sail was not carrying a sea chest full of free trade agreements. In Australia’s case we have always been a great trading nation, before we were a nation, before we were colonies. Geoffrey Blainey wrote about this history in relation to the continent’s position in the path of the trade winds.
If free trade agreements are not about trade what are they about? Well, like everything else in politics, they are about power, specifically about taking power away from the people and their institutions and giving it to multinational corporations and their servants.
My current reading is “Reclaiming the State” by Bill Mitchell and Thomas Fazi. It is in paperback, not long, not complicated, not expensive and highly recommended to anybody interested in current affairs. The authors locate the TPP against the backdrop of a macroeconomic principle known as “the improbably trinity” which maintains that a nation with an open economy can not simultaneously maintain an independent monetary policy, fixed exchange rates and an open capital account.
Dani Rodrick extended the principle in his “impossibility theorem” which says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible. True international integration, wrote Rodrick, required the elimination of all transaction costs in cross-border dealings. National borders remain relevant today because, in Rodrick’s words, “they demarcate political and legal jurisdictions” and hinder “contract enforcement” rules.
Mitchell and Fazi write: “This is why the latest range of ‘free trade agreements’ (The Trans Pacific Partnership — TPP and proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – TTIP etc) have little to do with lowering tariff barriers (which are already at an historical all-time low) and much more with limiting the capacity of governments to regulate in the public interest by means of so-called investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS) mechanisms.”
Bill Shorten, explaining how the dog ate his homework, said Labor, if elected, would try to do side deals with TPP members and would oppose such provisions in future trade agreements. The pathetic nature of this response was recognised within the Parliamentary Party and it was gratifying to hear that Caucus minutes were leaked and that a majority of members who spoke on the issue opposed the TPP.
In a page one report in the Financial Review of 4 October NSW State secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, Steve Murphy, criticised the Labor Party’s lack of consultation with unions on the TPP.
“Workers have endured 30 years of going backwards under policies from both sides of politics that have delivered offshoring and privatisation, destruction of jobs and job security and ongoing attacks on working conditions,” said Steve. “The TPP is the centrepiece for the next round of attacks on the rights of working people in Australia.”
Meanwhile Chris Bowen reminded us of modern Labor’s identity as the Party more neoliberal than the Liberals, promising to deliver bigger budget surpluses than the Coalition by matching new spending with budget cuts. Does Labor really need to suck up to the big end of town so assiduously? The Liberal leader who could have destroyed the ALP was Tony Abbot after his famous victory in 2013. All Tony had to do was steer the Liberals to the left and they would have left Labor marooned on its right-wing island squawking about competitive markets and suchlike gobbledegook.
Politicians are not interested in policy. They are interested in power and Tony had delivered unto them the important things in life – big offices with lots of phones and lots of staff to answer them and say “yes Minister. If Tony had led to the left they would have followed like sheep. Instead he and Joe Hocking introduced an austerity budget that gave Labor such a free ride that the Liberals in desperation turned to Malcolm Turnbull to repair the damage.
Chris Bowen does not have the luxury of Tony Abbot. Scott Morrison on the hustings has faster footwork than Tony or Malcolm. Scott is John Howard in overdrive and he will do whatever needs to be done to hang on to office. He won’t be worrying about balanced budgets.
Mitchell and Fazi quote Ellen Meiksins-Wood and Nancy Fraser on the demise of social democracy in our era of identity politics. The Meiksins-Wood passage quoted describing how post-modernism strengthened the grip of capitalism is so good I wish all members of the Labor and Greens Parties could read it (pp 147-48). It might be over the heads of the Liberals. Nancy Fraser sums up the result as a progressive neoliberalism “that mixed together truncated ideals of emancipation and lethal forms of financialization.”
For social democrats there is only one game in town and it is not the colours of the rainbow. Nor is it productivity, which is the least of our troubles. Today’s factories can and do produce enough junk to suffocate the entire human race.
The issue is the distribution of the surplus. What is needed is some cross fertilisation between the so-called populist Right which we associate with Brexit, Trump, Le Pen and co and the revivalist social democrats led by Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Melenchon. There is just a hint that this might be happening in the work of Steve Bannon.
This fundamental issue for humanity appears in stark relief in Europe where we are witnessing the break-up of the Eurozone. At least, I hope that is what we are seeing. In an earlier post (P&I 14 August) I mentioned a disappointing ABC Four Corners programme on Steve Bannon where the interviewer tried to out-talk her interesting subject. Another vacuous interview concerning the same gent was broadcast on ABC Radio National when my old friend Geraldine Doogue spoke to the courageous Italian author Loretta Napoleoni who is at her best when she is writing about her country’s greatest export – organised crime.
These two outspoken ladies ignored the elephant in the room which is the architecture of the European Union, analysed critically by economist Wynne Godley at the time of the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht. Godley’s criticism has been echoed more recently by such diverse critics as George Soros and Yanis Varoufakis. Europe has a central bank but no Treasury.
The sooner Italy, Greece, Spain and all the rest of them break out of this cruel prison and rebuild their own countries, their own parliaments and their own currencies the better. Personally, I always thought the European project was overly-ambitious. The French bureaucrats when they dreamed about controlling the German banks had spent too much time studying the Napoleonic Code.
Germany is a dangerous country. When my grandfather bought a new Holden his mates at the Melbourne Club asked him why he had not bought a Mercedes Benz. “Because the Germans have caused too much trouble in my time,” replied Stan, who was a terrible driver and should never have been allowed on the road.
His big brother, Ernest, was even worse. He squashed the National Bank’s Studebaker between two trams in Swanston Street and walked away from the accident scene to keep a luncheon appointment. Walking back to the bank after a long lunch, Ernest observed police officers searching for his body in the wreckage of the Studebaker. Even in those days bank managers lived well.
Jerry Roberts is a member of the ALP, a fact that would cause his Melbournian grandfather to roll over in his grave.