Labor’s trade dilemma
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a minefield for the Opposition
As a bona fide trade war between China and the United States hots up, minutes of Labor’s caucus debate on the over-hyped Trans-Pacific Partnership have been leaked [$] to the Herald Sun, and show the party trying hard to balance electability and perceived responsibility as it prepares to govern. The TPP-11 is hardly popular with voters. As Senator Doug Cameron highlighted in last week’s wrenching debate over whether to support the deal, “The politics are that working class people are insecure and Hanson is manipulating their insecurity … this will cause problems for the working class in Queensland and Western Sydney.” On the other hand, Penny Wong, Opposition leader in the Senate and former trade spokesperson, argued that in the face of a Trump administration that is dismantling trade rules and engaged in conflict, “Australia has a deep interest in trade based on rules.” Labor’s decision to back the TPP-11 dismayed the union movement and allows the Greens to campaign hard on protecting workers’ jobs and removing odious investor-state-dispute-settlement (ISDS) provisions. It’s a real policy dilemma.
Copies of the excerpted caucus minutes have been tweeted today by Herald Sun reporter Rob Harris, here, here and here. They make great reading. Shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh brings some history to bear: “We had this debate when Whitlam cut tariffs and again when Hawke and Keating did. We can’t go ahead with our broad-based Asia plans by opposing trade liberalisation.” Shadow finance minister Jim Chalmers backs him up: “As an Opposition we have been good at balancing the political and the responsible. We would not have had any leverage or credibility in the region or our leadership if we knocked this off now.” Shadow trade minister Jason Clare, who carried the caucus debate in favour of the deal, said that the Opposition would move to amend the bill, remove the ISDS and waiver of labour market testing, and introduce a private members’ bill flagging the kind of improvements Labor would seek in government.
Defending Labor’s decision today, deputy leader Tanya Plibersek told Sky News’ Kieran Gilbert that it is no secret that Labor has reservations about the TPP deal. She pointed to Labor’s public statements about not supporting ISDS mechanisms that allow private companies to sue governments that are acting in the national interest, and labour market testing. Kieran Gilbert asked, then, why is Labor backing the deal? Plibersek explained that the deal gives beneficial market access to important sectors, such as agriculture and steel, but that – if elected – Labor could “fix” the labour market testing provisions and ISDS clauses.
Whether the TPP-11 is in fact “beneficial” is highly questionable. As Crikey’s Bernard Keane wrote [$] earlier this month, even analysis by business groups backing the TPP shows that the economic benefits would be “trivial”. Labor hopes [$] to strike side deals with parties to the agreement, as New Zealand has done, after the fact. Yesterday, the Greens trade spokesperson, Sarah Hanson-Young, tweeted: “Labor needs to stop kidding themselves. If they really want to fix the TPP it needs to happen BEFORE they vote for it, after is too late. If they’re serious they will work with Greens to stop it in the Senate. Voting yes, they throw workers under the bus.”
ACTU secretary Sally McManus said the TPP encompassed “all the worst elements of our broken trade system … the ACTU and the union movement are disappointed by the ALP’s decision to vote for the TPP enabling legislation”. Former ACTU president Ged Kearney was one of those who spoke against the TPP in caucus.
Labor is treading through a minefield, as the union movement gears up ahead of the federal election. Covering the ACTU’s July congress in Brisbane, The Saturday Paper’s Alex McKinnon reported: “Many in the unions still bear a grudge from the last time a union-led campaign put a Labor government in office. Conference delegates from the CFMMEU handed out flyers accusing the former Rudd and Gillard governments of abandoning the movement after the Your Rights At Work campaign by expanding the Australian Building and Construction Commission and establishing the Fair Work Commission.”
“Pardon us for being a little bit pissed off, considering we and the rest of the trade union movement were the ones campaigning, handing out how-to-vote cards and spending money to get the ALP elected,” the flyer read. “It is our job to make sure the light on the hill burns bright, because in the Rudd–Gillard years it looked like someone had forgotten to pay the bill.”
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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.
As a bona fide trade war between China and the United States hots up, minutes of Labor’s caucus debate on the over-hyped Trans-Pacific Partnership have been leaked [$] to the Herald Sun, and show the party trying hard to balance electability and perceived responsibility as it prepares to govern. The TPP-11 is hardly popular with voters. As Senator Doug Cameron highlighted in last week’s wrenching debate over whether to support the deal, “The politics are that working class people are insecure and Hanson is manipulating their insecurity … this will cause problems for the working class in Queensland and Western Sydney.” On the other hand, Penny Wong, Opposition leader in the Senate and former trade spokesperson, argued that...