The West Australian, Thursday 23 Dec, 1999
Might not right in trade wars
Drawing by Don Lindsay
Australian trade negotiators should bear in mind the principles of fair trade, environmental sustainability and justice, writes JOHN McCARTHY*.
I am happy to see The West Australian is now discussing the free trade issue.
However, this discussion would be furthered if your writer was better informed (editorial 'Farmers shouldn't abandon hope', 7/12).
It is simply untrue that agricultural trade reform can amount to removing protection and subsidies from agriculture.
Moving in this direction begs a number of questions that need to be considered:
We need to first examine what replacing family-farms with profit-efficient transnational corporations will mean for families, for rural communities, and for our environment -- before moving in this direction;
We need to bear in mind age-old agricultural values that have sustained communities over centuries. We also need to include ecological sustainability - particularly finding a balanced way of using our natural heritage. The costs of unsustainable use for the future are not taken into account in the current framework.
Australia also provides forms of protection to farmers and graziers, including 'relief' for predictable climatic disasters, subsidies and selective tax dodges and, now freedom from the goods and services tax for export-related activities. (1)
Your writer also fails to consider that the World Trade Organisation has been criticised as undemocratic for some years.
Developing countries also need to protect their interests and the interests of poor populations primarily dependent on agriculture. This need should be taken seriously but, unfortunately, much of the debate fails to do so.
Australian negotiators need to bear in mind the principles of fair trade, environmental sustainability and justice.
This will be guaranteed when all nations have a genuinely equal say in the multilateral trading system.
Despite what the politicians (2) and their media boosters proclaim, might is not right. The developed countries have no right to bend the arms of the less powerful.
How can your writer make this sweeping generalisation: "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"? (3) Has free trade and globalisation so far made Australia a fairer place?
Or has it contributed to creating greater divisions and the problems experienced in regional Australia?
Many analysts have explored these questions, and many people believe that greed-driven corporate expansion has led to environmental degradation. These now pose significant threats to society and to the survival of other species.
Australia is witnessing increased polarization between urban elites and marginalised regional communities.
Moreover, we have seen what careless agricultural policies can lead to. Just look at the salt problem created by earlier government land-clearing policies in the Wheatbelt.
Clearly, there are more important things in life besides trade. We do not live by bread alone.
It is time to apply what we have learnt to this problem. I hope in future your editorial writers can take a more responsible role in helping us move in a better direction.
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. That suggestion by your writer displays a laughable ignorance of the way in which the WTO works.
The behaviour of President Bill 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 The West Australian 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. (I support Tasmania's action.)
*Mr McCarthy is a PhD student in environmental science at Murdoch University.
* * * *
LEFT ON THE CUTTING FLOOR:
(from the author's submitted copy)
(1) While protection is often about sectional advantage, sometimes protection can be necessary - for equity, for the environment, for marginal communities or for the common interest.
Who participates in making WTO decisions? While analysts have criticised the lack of democratic process and public participation in the WTO, your editorial fails to consider this issue. Yet, WTO decisions are binding on democratically elected legislatures who lose their power to make policy.
* * *
(2) The newspaper substituted 'politicians' for the original text 'transnational interests'.
* * *
(3) The evidence points in the other direction: In 1960 the poorest billion people earned 2.3% of world income. Today, despite vastly increased global trade, they earn 1.1%. Just look around you. Free trade and globalisation has created a great deal of wealth for some, but so far have they made Australia a fairer or better place?