Last month, former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott – in what can be best described as a sly move on the international front politically, even to the most astute of observers – cut a deal with the government of the United Kingdom to become its new international trade advisor.
And while the move drew the ire and concerns among those considering his appointment from 10 Downing Street and approving it in the British Parliament, and wondering whose government he’s really serving in the grand scheme of things, the union movement has given its concerns over Abbott’s potential conflict of interest in the role.
And it isn’t just the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) which has red-flagged these issues, as trade talks between the Morrison government and Boris Johnson’s government in the U.K. got underway this week.
The ACTU’s equal bodies in New Zealand and the U.K. – represented by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU) and the Trades Union Council (TUC), respectively – are also critical that with Abbott’s past history in leading the LNP government from 2013-15, many deals may be made in secret, as well as the potential of not knowing who consistently stands to benefit from them.
In a joint statement released by the trio of national union bodies, they call for their respective governments to consult their trade unions on the text of trade negotiations, conducting independent assessments of the impact on local workers, and putting the needs and concerns of those workers first.
“Negotiations must be transparent, with proposals and draft texts released publicly for consultation before a deal is reached,” said the statement.
And as Australians are aware of, transparency was hardly ever a staple of the Abbott government.
Locally, the ACTU cites the patterns of what happened with trade deals under Abbott’s watch during his time as Prime Minister – a period of time most significantly noted by the inking of free trade agreements with Japan, South Korea and China, deals that arguably didn’t favour Australia’s best interests for its own workers – could be repeated while he is working under a foreign government.
“We need to end the system which allows Governments to negotiate trade deals in secret and make sure that all deals put working people first,” said Michele O’Neil, the ACTU’s president.
O’Neil also summarised that the ACTU, NZCTU and the TUC are all jointly interested in protecting local workers’ rights, local industries and public services all in the name of national sovereignty and identity.
And Abbott’s past reputation of being an anti-worker bureaucrat could stand in the way of all of that.
“An anti-worker trade deal will limit the ability of the Australian government to respond to the ongoing pandemic and economic crisis. We need strong government investment in reconstruction and local jobs and to strengthen the rights of all working people,” said O’Neil.
And amid the current round of negotiations between Australia and Great Britain, there stands good reason for the reunited strange bedfellows of Abbott dealing with the Morrison government, according to the ACTU, for the following anti-worker characteristics:
If the ACTU possesses these fears for Australian-based workers about their jobs, wages and conditions, imagine the mindset of what the NZCTU and the TUC would have for theirs.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, uses an example of any U.K. pact made with the European Union, and what impact any Abbott-influenced negotiations may have on agreements with other nations.
“Good trade deals improve the lives of working people. They protect jobs, create new employment and raise global labour standards,” said O’Grady.
“Strong workers’ rights must be a common thread linking all the trade deals our nations make. The deal Britain makes with the EU has consequences for Australia and New Zealand, too. If it does not lock in high standards of workers’ rights, then the rights of their workers will come under pressure,” she added.
Richard Wagstaff, the president of the NZCTU, also stresses the importance of remembering any deals, cut by Abbott or any of his colleagues in the U.K., cannot forget the context of making economies recover from any effects surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, as long as the workers’ needs are put first.
“It is vital that all our international relationships reflect the reality that Covid-19 and the global financial crisis have graphically demonstrated,” said Wagstaff.
“These events have showed the importance of strong public services, of our health system, our need for greater self-reliance in medical supplies and other important goods and services, and the importance of preventing abuse of working people’s labour rights.
“It’s vital this agreement protects and strengthens our public services and state-owned enterprises, enables us to develop our own industries, and has enforceable labour rights provisions,” added Wagstaff.
And for all of these groups, the outcome of any agreement brokered comes down to transparency and ensuring that the workers’ rights are put first and foremost, as O’Neil points out.
“The COVID-19 crisis has shown the importance of strong Government support for local workers, and a robust and comprehensive set of rights for working people. Instead, this agreement has the potential to weaken the ability of our government to protect working people and expose workers to exploitation,” said O’Neil.
Also by William Olson:
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