It was as dreary as listening to the formulaic assessments of political economy by an unreconstructed Leninist. But Sunday morning with Steve Ciobo, Australia’s trade minister, was such an occasion.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, withering away on the branch of false optimism, has been an instrument of deserved suspicion and opprobrium from popular movements across countries suspicious about the paternalistic follies of their governments. It was precisely opposition to such a proposed agreement, negotiated in total secrecy away from the prying eyes of public interest groups, that fuelled the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential elections.
Even Hillary Clinton, whose husband was a vital figure behind initiating the North American Free Trade Agreement during the 1990s, began to chew some of the anti-free trade cud close to her ignominious defeat.
No free trade faith quite matches the monomania of Australian governments. Since the 1980s, liberalising and opening the economy has been an unshakeable trajectory, a punishing, stripping dogma that insists that being economically open is liberally good, and closed, parochially bad.
While other states have wised up to the idea that total openness is a recipe for local instability, estrangement, and disaster, the Australian response has been unshakeable: keep borders open and corporations content, except when it comes to refugees who arrive by boat. As Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull has insisted with staid predictability, the TPP “creates rules of the road to match the new economic world in which we’re living.”
For all this, Australia’s own industries have been supplanted. Energy and banking oligopolies have been given free rein to operate. Property prices in Sydney and Melbourne are reaching stratospheric heights, and the current government is promising to partly subsidise what will become one of the world’s largest, and environmentally destructive, of white elephants: the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.
Most telling of all is that the free traders have no interest in considering data of such irrefutable weight it should put an end to that unfortunately lingering religion. The US-Australian Free Trade agreement remains a matter of considerable loss to Australia, limiting rather than extending markets and access to Australian producers, and showing the country’s diplomatic crew as inept, ill-informed and, in the final analysis, sycophantic.
None of these points concern the bemused Ciobo. Ideology has already set the tone in this field. When the United States announced, through President Donald J. Trump, that it would have no truck with the TPP, the Australian delegation was left baffled but unmoved. The remaining states would keep the ship steady.
Now that Canada’s Justin Trudeau has decided to give the remaining countries a grand snub, Ciobo has been left searching for justifications. On Saturday in Danang, the Canadian Prime Minister did not so much decide to leave the party as ask for another one with a new set of provisions. In the spirit of Trump, he wished to negotiate for a deal would be far more beneficial to Canada than what was already on the table.
Trudeau insisted at his closing APEC news conference that the Canadians “were not going to be rushed into a deal”. It was a matter that came as “no surprise and it actually didn’t come as a surprise to people who’d noticed that I was saying that and have been saying that all week.”
It certainly did come as a surprise to the lethargic Australians, already convinced that a revised deal had plugged all holes, and settled all differences. The problematic intellectual property restrictions, for one, were supposedly to be suspended. Concessions had been made.
Lindsay Murdoch of the Sydney Morning Herald insisted that the Canadian leader had “sabotaged the endorsement of a pact to salvage a multi-billion dollar, 11-nation Pacific Rim trade deal at the last minute, surprising other nations, including Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull.”
Murdoch even went so far as to speculate that Trudeau had engaged in an entirely unilateral move, one that went against the wishes of his own cabinet. “Mr. Trudeau’s walk-out is deeply embarrassing for his Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who has agreed to the deal.”
On Sunday, Ciobo suffered what can only be an episode of denial, having himself been asleep for a good deal of Trudeau’s conversion. “Having lost a bit of momentum on the back of the decision by the Canadians not to attend the leaders meeting on the TPP11, we’ll have to keep working methodically through it.”
Notwithstanding the Canadian rebuff, Ciobo could still insist with an unmoving, humourless face that matters would work out for the free marketers. “I’m very confident. And I know my counterparts in the 10 other countries, we all feel that we can accommodate the various questions that are outstanding.”
The new approach was to suggest that Trudeau’s behaviour could be managed and tempered. Exemptions on culture, notably those touching on French-speaking Quebec, might be considered. After all, claimed Ciobo, the TPP was of the very highest “quality”, a deal maintaining “high standards and would have been seen benefits flowing to the countries.”
That these benefits are speculative and almost entirely corporate based rather than focused on the commonweal, suggests why the Australian delegation, along with its likeminded colleagues, has been left in the lurch. It remains for others to wake up from this self-imposed hibernation from sense and sensibility.