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Monday, 6 December 1999
Page: 12905


Mr JENKINS (10:53 PM) —The collapse of the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation at Seattle at the weekend can surely come as no surprise to anyone who has paid even cursory attention to the issue of international trade. The fundamental areas of difference are not new. About six weeks ago in a contribution in the Main Committee, I quoted remarks of President Clinton which are now worth re-examining. Addressing a meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council in Washington in October, President Clinton predicted that the Seattle meeting would attract a range of protesters: environmentalists, human rights activists, trade unions and labour organisers. President Clinton rightly pointed out that the WTO had brought much of the criticism on itself.

In a memorable phrase which I quoted in my speech on 21 October, the President suggested that the WTO had for too long been `treated like some private priesthood for experts'. Finally, President Clinton proposed that access to the deliberative processes of the WTO would have to be opened up so that interest groups had an opportunity to be heard. The predictions of protest became a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the protesters did not cause the collapse of the talks; they merely heralded its inevitability.

The knee-jerk response of the Minister for Foreign Affairs was typical of a member of the `priesthood'. The protesters were `Luddites of the 20th century' who were standing in the way of progress. As the editorial in last Sunday's Canberra Times pointed out, this sort of glib swipe is `precisely the kind of politics of dismissal that contributes to such protests in the first place'.

It is acknowledged on a bipartisan basis that further trade talks hold out the prospect of many advantages for Australia. Greater market access for Australian exporters in manufacturing as well as in agriculture can lead to more jobs and, in theory, to cheaper products for consumers. The government must recognise, however, that many Australians simply do not accept these sorts of predictions and assurances at face value. For many Australians, if the term `free trade' means anything at all, it conjures up the spectre of unemployment. Dismissing these legitimately based fears as Luddism does not advance the debate.

The migrant worker in their late 40s whose industry may face the prospect of unfair competition does not want to be told that they are standing in the way of progress. The foreign minister knows full well that these concerns were not shared just by a few Trotskyites and hotheads on the streets of Seattle. President Clinton and Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, met on 27 October and agreed that the new round needed to be different in content and process from its predecessors. As the European Union News reported, the presidents agreed that the new round would have to:

. . . take into account the rapid advances in technology, particularly related to electronic commerce. The social dimensions of trade should be addressed, as should the relationship between trade policy, trade liberalisation, development and labour rights, in order to maximise the benefits of open trade for all workers.

The United States has of course shown a great capacity for wanting the best of both worlds by seeking to uphold both sides of the argument. On the one hand, over the issue of lamb, the American government is prepared to ditch free trade at the drop of hat when the interests of its own producers are threatened. On the other hand, in my electorate, I have seen ample evidence of the American government running to the WTO to invoke the doctrine of free trade against an Australian company that is making inroads into one of their domestic markets. The company in question, Howe Leather, employs 350 people, including many in my electorate.

Whilst those who attack President Clinton for playing domestic politics at Seattle and accuse the United States of failing to show leadership may well have a point, they overlook one extremely unfortunate consequence of this line of argument—it diminishes the importance of the issues that President Clinton raised: the protection of the environment, the elimination of the exploitation of child and forced labour and the establishment of basic conditions of labour. These are not frivolous issues. In my view, the US agenda had, and still has, overwhelming merit. I have said before in this place that free trade must also be fair trade. Put simply, this means that the level playing field must be level.

Australian companies which are required to provide safe conditions for their workers, which are required to pay them an appropriate wage and which are required to protect the environment cannot fairly compete with those who do not. Our standards of occupational and public health, remuneration and environmental protection must not be compromised for the sake of a theoretical commitment to free trade. Countries should retain the sovereign right to reject products that have been produced under conditions that are below their standards. This is the primary duty of government: to protect the national interest. It must never be forgotten that trade is not an end in itself; trade is a means to an end. If taking a principled stand on these issues is Luddism, then so be it. Maybe the followers of Ned Ludd had a point. (Time expired)