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Trade and pub­lic policy

For more than 30 years I nego­ti­ated, ana­lyzed and advised on inter­na­tional trade agree­ments, mostly for gov­ern­ments (I was an Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment offi­cial for about half of that time). Occa­sion­ally I con­sulted to pri­vate inter­ests includ­ing indus­try and traders’ asso­ci­a­tions, cham­bers of com­merce and some­times firms caught-up in a ‘trade rem­edy’ action.

☞ You’ll find ten years of posts com­ment­ing on events and oppor­tun­ti­ties in the inter­na­tional trade sys­tem here on my site.

For rea­sons I’ve exam­ined here, the momen­tum of trade agree­ments slowed after the Doha round col­lapsed at the end of 2008. Australia’s trade nego­ti­a­tions pro­gram slipped into neu­tral as bilat­eral trade nego­ti­a­tions with North and East Asia ran into the sand.

Then Andrew Robb, Trade Min­is­ter in Tony Abbott’s con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ment con­cluded nego­ti­a­tions with Korea, Japan and China within a year; mostly by decid­ing to accept what was on the table after a decade of talks. (He was helped in each case by the rapid col­lapse of the Aus­tralian auto­mo­bile man­u­fac­tur­ing indus­try faced with low pro­tec­tion and an end to sub­si­dies.) Over­all, with trade growth tank­ing due largely to China’s weaker demand out­look, it was time to make the best of the sit­u­a­tion and move on… to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP nego­ti­a­tions absorbed a lot of offi­cial ener­gies for five or six years, but even now that the text of the pro­posed deal has been pub­lished it remains unclear what its com­mer­cial sig­nif­i­cance will be. The hub-and-spokes con­fig­u­ra­tion (a series of bilat­eral FTAs with the USA) imposed on them since 2011 may turn out to be more harm­ful than ben­e­fi­cial for future regional mar­ket inte­gra­tion. The omis­sion of China also weak­ens the entire fab­ric. Still, the text appears sig­nif­i­cant for Aus­tralia to the extent that it com­mits us to zero­ing of our tar­iff at last (on a pref­er­en­tial basis, cer­tainly, but across a very big share of our trade; the same treat­ment has been extended sep­a­rately to China in the AUSCHN FTA). The neg­a­tive list on ser­vices trade is much more dif­fi­cult to parse; it may be noth­ing more than a sort of pol­icy stand­still. More ana­lyt­i­cal work is needed there. The Invest­ment chap­ter looks good on paper (still, the wretched “national inter­est” test is pre­served) and the IP chap­ter appears no more nox­ious than feared (but we had already betrayed pro­por­tion­al­ity in the AUSFTA).

As for WTO… Although the Organ­i­sa­tion and Treaty still pro­vide essen­tial ser­vices (includ­ing Dis­pute Set­tle­ment), it is look­ing more and more like a place­holder for what­ever comes next. The for­mal mul­ti­lat­eral frame­work of inter­na­tional com­mer­cial exchange is flac­cid and tot­ter­ing. Even the valu­able (‘though over-hyped) Trade Facil­i­ta­tion Agree­ment reached in 2013 lies dor­mant, wait­ing for rat­i­fi­ca­tion by gov­ern­ments whose pri­or­i­ties seem bound to more, not less, bureau­cratic inter­fer­ence with pri­vate enterprise.

I remain engaged in policy-analysis activ­i­ties includ­ing teach­ing in the Mas­ters of Inter­na­tional Trade & Devel­op­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Ade­laide (below).

In Feb­ru­ary 2015, I com­pleted a cen­ten­nial his­tory of the Inter­na­tional Cham­ber of Com­merce; prob­a­bly the strongest and cer­tainly the most endur­ing and con­sis­tent advo­cate of pri­vate enter­prise and lib­eral trade poli­cies through the 20th cen­tury. Pub­li­ca­tion has, how­ever, been post­poned by the ICC until 2019 which is the cen­te­nary of its for­mal con­sti­tu­tion (although not of its con­cep­tion). Prob­lems of data and scope posed quite a few chal­lenges for me: the final draft is, nec­es­sar­ily, a sort of his­tory of the world econ­omy from 1914 to 2014 inter­wo­ven with the polit­i­cal econ­omy of this remark­able insti­tu­tion. For­tu­nately, there were also some intrigu­ing char­ac­ters who played an impor­tant role in ICC’s his­tory as they did, too, in the his­tory of gov­ern­ment and busi­ness. Their sto­ries lift the narrative.

Human (med­ical) research ethics

For more than a decade, I’ve been for­tu­nate to have been appointed to the Ethics com­mit­tee of a major pub­lic hos­pi­tal in Mel­bourne, with a large research and teach­ing port­fo­lio. The hos­pi­tal has a lead­ing rep­u­ta­tion in trauma research and an asso­ci­ated insti­tu­tion is a well-recognised cen­tre for “first-in-man” tri­als of drugs and devices. It’s excit­ing to observe the front-lines of med­ical research and care, although rapidly improv­ing tech­nolo­gies some­times make knotty prob­lems out of once-straightforward eth­i­cal choices.

There’s another inter­est for me, too. The foun­da­tions of what we now call empiri­cism began with med­ical research. The most active mem­bers of the Royal Soci­ety (and of the Académie des Sci­ences, for that mat­ter) in the late 17th Cen­tury — where the ‘sci­en­tific method’ first secured a rhetor­i­cal beach-head — were physi­cians, many of them stu­dents of the great empir­i­cal anatomist William Har­vey. Still today, evidence-based pub­lic pol­icy finds its con­cep­tual roots in the med­ical sciences.


I’m teach­ing grad­u­ate stu­dents at Ade­laide Uni­ver­sity the polit­i­cal econ­omy of trade and a research-methods course that grows out of my inter­est in the use of sta­tis­tics (and visual pre­sen­ta­tion of data) to rep­re­sent the com­plex inter­ac­tions of world mar­kets and pro­duc­tion. I’m a long-time devo­tee — ama­teur, in every sense — of the sta­tis­ti­cal lan­guage “R” and have begun to use it in the course mate­ri­als.