The Politics    Friday, June 28, 2019

Birmingham’s trade play

By Paddy Manning

Image of Mathias Cormann, Scott Morrison and Simon Birmingham at the G20 in Osaka

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Trade Minister Simon Birmingham at a working dinner with the president of the United States, Donald Trump, the G20 in Osaka. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

A new pan-Asian trade pact without the US could be a very good thing

Reports that Australia is hosting secret talks to strike an EU-type, pan-Asian trade deal spark hopes that the Morrison government is doing something sensible, constructive and off its own bat about the US–China trade war, rather than just urging the US and China to back down. Whether another multilateral trade deal – a 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), on top of the 10-member ASEAN group and eclipsing the TPP-11 – will help stabilise the region is not clear. But Australia can point to a solid track record of facilitating multilateral negotiations, from setting up the Cairns Group of agricultural exporters in the 1980s, to championing APEC through the ’90s, to ramping up the G20 during the financial crisis, or keeping the TPP-11 on track after US president Donald Trump pulled out in 2017. Given that expectations of a US–China breakthrough at today’s G20 summit in Osaka are low [$], and notwithstanding sharp reservations about the secrecy and terms of any new pan-Asian deal, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham should be commended for rolling up his sleeves and getting started on such an ambitious project.

The Australian Financial Review’s political editor, Phillip Coorey, wrote [$] last night that the Osaka G20 summit had similar hallmarks to December’s meeting in Buenos Aires: “So here we are again, new city, same situation. The WTO still hasn’t been reformed, the trade war is worsening and the world awaits another meeting between Trump and Xi.” An hour-long dinner between Trump, Morrison and the substantial US and Australian delegations has thrown up the possibility of a presidential visit to the Presidents Cup golf tournament in Melbourne later this year. (No doubt Iran was discussed, and alarmingly, unlike in the UK, the PM is not ruling out [$] Australian involvement in another US war of aggression in the Middle East.)

In a Parliament House address yesterday, China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, said [$] his country would “fight to the end” in its trade war with the US. China’s foreign ministry today issued a statement [$] that stopped short of criticising the PM over his speech earlier this week – which backed the trade grievances of the US – and said: “We hope Australia will meet China halfway and promote the healthy and steady development of the bilateral relations on the basis of mutual trust and mutual benefit.”

Details are scant about the proposed RCEP, which will include ASEAN plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India. Birmingham has called it “one of the most economically significant trade agreements in the world”, covering 30 per cent of global gross domestic product and 3.5 billion people.

The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network yesterday issued an open letter to Birmingham on behalf of more than 50 community groups, including the ACTU. The letter demands the release of negotiating texts, and asks the government to oppose clauses that would give greater rights to global corporations at the expense of peoples’ rights, through so-called investor–state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions, which allow corporations to sue signatory countries over domestic laws and policies.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese flagged similar concerns in an interview with Sky News Australia’s Laura Jayes yesterday: “Let’s be very clear – we don’t think that investor–state dispute clauses are appropriate. Other countries exclude them from trade agreements because they raise real issues of national sovereignty when it comes to our capacity to control what happens in our national economy. So we don’t think that a commitment to being a trading nation means that you give away your sovereignty, or that you give away the idea that you examine each issue with regard to jobs being created here in Australia.”

That’s not to say, however, that multilateral trade deals should never happen; a truly pan-Asian trade pact that tied Australia more closely to the region would be welcome – exciting, even – and may work better without the US. As former foreign minister Bob Carr wrote today, Trump has changed America more radically than any president in a century, forcing Australians to think again about their great friend.

“You can’t call an election against your own side.”

Liberal frontbencher Simon Birmingham expressing the view that it would have been untenable for then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to go to the governor-general to call an early election at the height of last year’s leadership coup.

“To silence those who are politically motivated and continue to raise this; prior to the minister’s nomination at the May election, he formally renounced any interest in the trust in question.”

A spokesperson confirms that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has finally made sure he meets the eligibility requirements of section 44 of the Constitution.

Condemned to interesting times
As Labor loses party discipline over tax cuts, the Coalition enters into an ugly post-mortem of its leadership change.


The proportion of the federal government’s proposed $95 billion stage-three tax cut that goes to those on incomes above $180,000, according to Parliamentary Budget Office analysis obtained by the Greens.

“The [Human Services] Department’s conduct is abysmal. It’s the conduct that you would expect [from] a tinpot, third-world country. At no stage does Centrelink ever seek to defend the unlawful basis on which it’s raising those debts. [It’s] a bit like the Mafia saying: ‘You owe me money. Do I have to prove that you owe me money? No I don’t.’ That … is what we usually say is extortion.”

Terry Carney, who served as a member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal’s social security division for 39 years, tells the ABC’s 7.30 that the federal government’s robodebt program amount to extortion.

The list

“The idea that any and all arguments should be ventilated in a mythical marketplace of ideas is sustained with great vigour by our media class. For those huddled minorities crying out for the fourth estate to hold our own public figures and institutions to account, the proclamations of a ‘contest of ideas’ are grating.”

“The poet Rilke once wrote that ‘beauty is the beginning of terror’ ... The greatest surprise of Chernobyl – even greater than learning the HBO series’ creator and screenwriter, Craig Mazin, was formerly best known for penning parts two and three of the comic bro-epic The Hangover – is how beautiful such a terrible story can be.”

“Just as parents once had to work out how to regulate their children’s TV and Nintendo habits without being able to draw on their own experiences, today’s parents have no idea what it’s like to have Facebook or Instagram in school, or personalised screens – with their never-ending streams of messages and updates – in the classroom. Australian parents are anxious about screens in their children’s lives.”

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor at The Monthly and the author of Inside the Greens and Body Count.

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