Defeat of the Cairns Group proposals
A letter by Brian Jenkins, commenting on a newspaper editorial. The paper declined to print this letter or any of several letters critical of the editorial. However, two weeks later, on 23 December 1999, it printed a feature article by John McCarthy based on this letter.
7 December, 1999
To the Editor, the West Australian
The West Australian must be about the last newspaper in the world to join a long-running debate on the fitness of the World Trade Organisation to regulate our lives. Understandably, then, the writer of your editorial ('Farmers shouldn't abandon hope', 7/12) is poorly informed.
The notion that agricultural trade reform is a matter of removing all forms of protection and subsidy from the world's farms is both simplistic and hypocritical on the following grounds:
* The replacement of family-based farms by more profit-efficient transnational corporations is too controversial a development to be achieved worldwide without the protracted examination of the process which is now being insisted on;
* Comparison of the interests and culture of the 'Cairns Group' surplus-sellers with primarily domestic food-producers of Europe and the Third World is a chalk-and-cheese exercise which ignores sustainable agricultural values developed over centuries;
* Australia's extensive agriculture is ecologically unsustainable and will ultimately need to be balanced by land and water conservation measures, the costs of which are not fully accounted for in current production;
* Australia is just as adept as overseas competitors in providing forms of protection to farmers and graziers, including 'relief' for predictable cyclical climatic adversities, subsidies and selective tax dodges and, now, freedom from GST for export-related activities.
Your writer's contention that the deficiencies of the WTO were "revealed at this [Seattle] meeting" is wrong and ridiculous. There has been detailed criticism of the WTO's lack of democratic process and effective guidelines for some years. I myself summarised the main problems 7 months ago in a 4-page submission to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. [Copy forwarded separately, for reference].
The real problem for the Cairns group is that developing countries are no longer prepared to be tricked and bullied by the wealthy countries and trade blocs into opening their markets without corresponding advantage to themselves. That this refusal was signalled many months ago is proof that Australia and its cohorts were simply negligent in failing to recognise the established need for a more flexible bargaining position.
In adopting the foreign-affairs principle that "might is right" (e.g., in dealings with Indonesia, China and the US), Australian negotiators have unfortunately lost sight of the principles of fair trade, environmental sustainability and justice which will inevitably assume primacy when all nations have a genuinely equal say in the multilateral trading system.
There is absolutely no possibility that WTO director-general Mike Moore can make the necessary "internal reforms" in the weeks before the next discussions at Geneva - and that suggestion by your writer displays a laughable ignorance of the way in which the WTO works.
The behaviour of President Clinton in giving priority to US national interests (and the electoral interests of his colleague Al Gore) is in no way different from your newspaper's agitation for Australian sectional advantage at the expense not only of less fortunate countries but also of Australians whose life-vision is not based on greed and exploitation.
I note that The West has not commented, for instance, on the attempt by Tasmania to protect its salmon-farming interests by legislating to flout the WTO decision that Australia's quarantine ban on salmon imports was illegitimate. (Personally, I support Tasmania's action.)
I have rarely seen in a responsible newspaper such a facile, unsupported generalisation as your "Eased trade restrictions will not result in environmental disasters or domination by multinationals. They will result in a fairer international market which will benefit Australia".
These questions have for some years been intensively explored by the world's academics and non-government organisations. There is a considerable body of opinion that greed-driven corporate expansion and resultant environmental degradation pose significant threats to human society and to the survival of other species.
Australia has recently learned, through the East Timor experience, that there are more important things in life than overseas trade. It is now time to apply those lessons in building a better and more sustainable future for ourselves and others by balancing the valid interests of trade with those of care for the lives of the world's peoples - and the environment on which future generations must depend.