Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Trading blows
As China and the US spar, Australia needs a steady hand and full transparency


If US president Donald Trump’s hair-raising, crash-or-crash-through approach on trade has really resulted in some form of concession from Chinese president Xi Jinping today, it may be that an all-out trade war between our two biggest partners will be avoided. The hard question is where Australia’s interests lie, if China takes the high road and opens its economy further, while the US sinks further into protectionism and isolation? Should we continue to plead for Trump to give Australia special treatment, such as tariff exemptions, while pegging our hopes on a US return to the negotiating table over a Trade Pacific Partnership-11 deal that deliberately excludes China? It is the kind of serious question that might be openly debated in the Senate if the government would allow proper scrutiny of the TPP-11. Unfortunately, as of last week, the signs weren’t good.

In a landmark, 40-minute speech to the Boao Forum for Asia annual conference in Hainan, Xi Jinping reportedly [$] distanced himself from the trade dispute being waged by Donald Trump. He vowed to take new steps to open up China’s economy, by lowering tariffs on auto imports this year, easing restrictions on foreign ownership in the auto industry and pushing previously announced measures to open the financial sector. US stock futures, the US dollar and Asian shares jumped this afternoon.

In this [$] well-timed piece yesterday, The Australian’s business editor-at-large, Alan Kohler, argued that despite the bluster and tit-for-tat tariff announcements, a free-trade deal between the US and China was coming. “They’re shouting at each other first because that’s how Donald Trump negotiates,” Kohler wrote, “but there will be a deal eventually, even if they do impose tariffs on a few of each others’ exports for a while. There has to be a deal.”

Surely Australia’s response to these manoeuvres should be steady and measured. Last week, however, the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) claimed that the trade minister, Steve Ciobo, had cut short the timetable for an inquiry into the TPP-11, now renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive TPP (CPTPP), by the government-dominated Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT), which cannot amend the agreement. The shorter timetable could jeopardise proper consideration of public submissions and public hearings, AFTINET said. Further, AFTINET said that if the shorter timetable resulted in fast-tracked passage of the TPP-implementing legislation, it could render almost completely irrelevant a fully independent Senate inquiry that was moved by the NXT (now the Centre Alliance) and supported by Labor and the Greens.

“To our knowledge no government has previously attempted to cut short a JSCOT inquiry into a major treaty,” AFTINET convenor Dr Patricia Ranald said. “This would prevent proper democratic scrutiny by both JSCOT and the Senate inquiry, and would increase community distrust of the process.”

There are many concerns with the CPTPP, including the dreaded investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions that allow foreign corporations to sue governments in opaque and unaccountable trade tribunals over regulatory restrictions they don’t like, and which are opposed by Labor and the crossbench.

Dr Ranald has been researching a paper on the real costs of the preferential free-trade agreements struck by Australia since 2001, and what is striking is the lack of any evidence of the economic benefits they provide. “Neoliberal trade policies of zero tariffs and zero other barriers to trade and investment have not delivered the economic growth and employment predicted by neoliberal economic modelling,” she says. “This failure has generated both conservative and progressive resistance. The Australian Coalition government has abandoned such studies, claiming that benefits still exist, but cannot be measured through economic modelling.”

Which is kind of reminiscent of the government’s arguments for big business tax cuts. They tend to rely on ideology, rather than evidence. What’s the rush?

since this morning

Foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop has fended off questions about her ambitions to lead the Liberal Party, and has rejected Barnaby Joyce’s suggestion that Malcolm Turnbull should go if polls didn’t improve by December.

Former senator Nick Xenophon’s name is to be dropped [$] from the party he created, which will be renamed the Centre Alliance.

Emma Alberici’s news story on corporate tax rates contained nine errors of fact and omissions, the ABC told a Senate Estimates communications committee today [$].

The NBN has announced an additional 440,000 homes and businesses around the country will get fibre-to-the-curb technology instead of the troubled HFC cable.

in case you missed it

Fairfax Media’s Rachel Olding reports a defector’s claim that journalist Marie Colvin was hunted and assassinated by the Syrian regime.

Refugees on Manus Island say the drawdown of Australian-funded medical services forced them to call doctors in Australia for emergency care when one of them was stabbed repeatedly with a screwdriver during an armed robbery.

by Harry Windsor
‘Ready Player One’: a candy-coloured lesson on VR’s dangers
Spielberg has principles, and if you don’t like them, he has others

by Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Cecil Taylor: music icon and time traveller
Celebrating the free jazz pioneer

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is a contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly. He is a writer and journalist who has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including Boganaire: The rise and fall of Nathan Tinkler.

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