Interview: Trade Secrets
Industrial: It’s About Overtime, Stupid
Unions: Full Steam Ahead
Bad Boss: The BBQ Battle Axe
Economics: Different Dimensions of Debt
History: Raking the Coals
History Special: Wherever the Necessity Exists
History Special: Learning from the Past
History Special: A 'Cosy Relationship'
Politics: Regime Change for Saddam
International: World War
Corporate: Industrious Thinking
Review: Jack High
Culture: Duffy’s Song
Satire: A Nation of Sooks
Poetry: Mr Flexibility
The Locker Room
Month In Review
Lessons from History
State Based Organising
Gino on the Gong
Interview with Peter Lewis
You made a waves recently when you put it on the Prime Minister personally for the way Australia's relations with Asia had deteriorated over the last five years. What has been the cost?
We need strong relations with Asia to maintain our trade with Asia and our overall economic and social relationship with the countries of Asia. It has been an incredible and rapidly growing market for us as a result of all market opening work that the previous Labor Government did and I just don't want to see any of that jeapodised. I'll just give you an example; Australia's exports to China have grown over the last decade five times the rate of our exports to the US and our exports to China and Taiwan are larger than our exports to the United States. So these are two good reasons as to why we can't and shouldn't be doing anything to weaken or jeapordise our relations with the countries of our regions.
Is the message you're getting back when you do talk to that region, that they do, as you said, think Howard is anti-Asian?
The message that I get is that the Government is not as comfortable dealing with the countries of Asia as it is with other countries. Now whether that's an accurate assessment or not it's always got to be the basis for some concern in terms of our future relations with the countries of Asia. The point that I was making in my criticism of the Government and John Howard was in launching into a free trade agreement between Australia and the United States we have to be very careful that that doesn't lead to some sort of retaliation by the countries of East Asia which ends up causing markets in those countries to be closed to Australia or heavily restricted. That would be very costly in terms of Australian jobs and I see it as my responsibility to alert the community to those sorts of dangers. The idea of a US Australia free trade agreement sounds a little bit like motherhood - why would you be against it? Well, there are real hazards in it and I am simply alerting the community to some of those hazards.
Of course a few of those hazards have made their way on to the front pages of our papers: the trade offs the Americans are expecting for a free trade agreement, are they things we should be conceding?
Well let's just go through some of them. The United States has already identified Australian local content in television, film and radio as a restraint on trade and they'd like to, as an objective see our local content rule eased. It's up to the Australian community to have a say in whether it is happy about our local content rules being eased or abolished.
The next one is in relation to the Foreign Investment Review Board. The stated objective of the United States is to modify or remove our foreign investment controls. Now I think the Australian community should have a say in whether we have some sort of screening process for particular foreign investments proposals to ensure there is international interest or not, I would think that we should retain some controls over foreign investment even though generally I'm supportive of foreign investment. I asked Alexander Downer, who as Foreign Minister was representing the Trade Minister, that if the United States put among its requirements for a free trade agreement with Australia the abolition of the Foreign Investment Review Board, the abolition of local content rules and the abolition of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme would the Australian Government put those things on the negotiating table? He said if the Americans asked for that it would quote "all be part of the negotiating process". So here's the Australian Government saying that if the American's ask for these things we will contemplate them. I reckon that the Australian public should have a say in all of that.
Of course, the international standard bearer for standing up for their cultural and economic autonomy is probably the French. Why can't Australia just do a France and say we are going to keep content, we're going to look after our farmers, why can't we do that?
That's a very good questions and I think that the Australian public deserves an answer to that question. These are the very issues that I was raising in the Parliament and in my comments about the problems that I see with the US Australia free trade agreement. You know the Americans actually have a congressional oversight committee. They have stated objectives that were outlined by the US Administration to the Congress and we don't have either of those in Australia. So I'm not being critical of the United States, I'm being critical of the Howard Government in going forward on this without involving the public and without any stated objectives other than that we want one of these things. It does sound a little bit like motherhood, sounds good to us so we'll have one.
Well I think they're going to have to be vigilant in working out whether any such deal is in Australia's national interest. What Labor is saying is that it must be in Australia's national interest to go ahead with such a deal and to be in Australia's national interest we need to - on the one hand protect our local content, protect our capacity to screen foreign investment proposals and protect the cost of medicine - and on the other hand we need a good deal for farmers by the United States allowing much better access to Australian agricultural produce. The Howard Government seems to be saying well we want one of these whatever the cost whereas at least the United States has been sensible enough to set out its objectives for a trade deal with Australia. This government hasn't done that.
I guess you'd have to concede though that for the last decade and half both sides of politics have basically said liberalisation global trade is an unmitigated good. Is reviewing that position the sort of 'bold policy' that you've been talking about in some of the private papers that have recently been made public?
I believe that liberalising trade can create and will create jobs in Australia, but we need to always look at this from the point of view of Australia's national interest. The rules of the world trading system at present discriminate against developing countries and discriminate against our agriculture products in particular, so if we got the rules right and if the rules were fair for all countries concerned, then I think that there are gains to be made. I'm sure there are gains to be made from further liberalisation. So I'm not saying let's put up tariff barriers, I'm not saying that but let's pursue these things from Australia's national interest not from the interest of any other countries
Are there particular Labor perspectives you can bring to an area like trade. Is it more than just an area of managerialism where there is good administration first and last?
That's a good question. Firstly, Labor has consistently been focused on multi-lateral trade negotiations consistent with our approach to multi-literalism generally going back to Doc Evatt days of the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and so on. In fact, under the Chifley Government Australia was instrumental in setting up the first General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade - that is, the global trading system that was put in place after the Second World War.
That was Labor then and Labor now continues to prefer the multi-lateral forums over the bi-lateral ones, over what are called preferential free trade deals with individual countries. All that can do, we think, is lead to retaliation by other countries and the whole place disintegrates and that's what happened in the lead up to the Great Depression and it was a contributing factor in the Second World War. As regional trading blocks were formed around the world, countries lost other countries out of their markets. So that is a traditional Labor perspective.
Now days there is another dimension that should be added to this and that is those who are concerned about the impact of globalisation on the poor and on particular industries. I agree with them that the community has a right to know what's going on, it has a right to be involved in the processes instead of those negotiations being conducted behind closed doors and that is why Labor has moved and we are confident that we'll be successful in having a Senate Inquiry initiated into the General Agreement on Trad in Services. Because the negotiations that are going on by the Australian Government with governments around the world are not known publicly and it has been said to us there's no intention to make it public.
Well, we're going to set up a Senate Inquiry which will force the government to make this sort of information available to the community and allow the community to have an input into that process. All we want to know is, is the Government going to negotiate an erosion of our public health system? Is it going to negotiate a weakening of our commitment a public education system? We can't get straight answers on this because the government is refusing to tell us. Well, that's why we're setting up a Senate Inquiry so that we the Parliamentary Labor Party and the general community can understand what's going on and have a genuine input into the process
This is quite a departure from the ethos of the Keating years.
Well, I don't know if that's right. I think that the Keating Government was reasonably open in general in these processes. But the point is that in the 21st Century the community wants to be involved in these sorts of decisions and we think that's completely, entirely appropriate and so that's the fundamental difference between the Labor and the Coalition. The Coalition thinks it can conduct negotiations behind closed doors and then just put the results in front of the Parliament for effectively rubber-stamping it. Now that's not going to happen as far as we're concerned
On trade, the big issue that the international union movement's been pushing over recent years is to incorporate core global labour standards into the equation, the some called fair trade not free trade. What's your reaction to that campaign?
I agree that we should be vigilant about labour standards and there have been quite celebrated or notorious cases where child labour has been used to produce products that have been then imported into Australia, so I have a lot of sympathy with the idea of lifting living standards in developing countries. I mean as a Labor person that has to be part of our view of the world that poor countries should be lifted out of poverty. At the same time I wouldn't want to see the issue of labour standards being used as effectively a device to protect Australia against imports. I don't see it as that being necessarily in the interest of Australian consumers or in the interest of people who are trying to get themselves out of poverty in developing countries. So I think it is valid that core labour standards be an issue but if it's used, if it were to be used as a basis for saying well we don't want any imports coming into the country from countries that have lower labour costs than Australia then that wouldn't be right either. Now I'm not suggested that those who are arguing for fair trade over free trade are putting that proposition but it's just something we need to be aware of when countries do have different wage rates.
At this stage it's more around the right to organise along with no child labour and no slave labour ...
And there have been good campaigns against footwear companies that have had child labour or who have their contractors in developing countries saying that you cannot have a unionised workforce and we are going to have child labour. I think it's entirely appropriate that the Australian public be alerted to those sorts of cases and there have been good campaigns in Australia. I know Nike for example got into a lot of hot water over this and I think that's right; what seems to me is that Nike didn't have very good control over its contractors, it wasn't running the quality control ruler over its contractors in developing countries. Now there was a good Australian campaign to alert the public to this fact and they've had to respond to that
There's been much talk, particularly in recent times about the relationship between the unions and the ALP. What do you think the unions want out of this relationship?
Oh, I would think that the unions want a say and they would want the ALP to represent the interests of working people and I agree completely with those objectives
How close do you think the current party set up is to meeting that aspiration?
I think that the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party under Simon Crean's leadership is committed to a strong relationship with the trade union movement. We know that the issue of 50/50 vs. 60/40 was based on Simon's view that it should be an equal partnership. That debate's already been had and resolved, but there was never any weakening of a commitment to the role played by the union movement in the Australia Labor Party. I've long held the view that the Labor Party is a party based on trade unionism and it would suffer a big loss of identity if those links were to weaken. So I've always been a strong advocate of retaining those links as, in fact, Simon Crean has
Finally, in the caucus paper that did manage to see the light of day, you argued very passionately that Labor has got stop keeping the focus on the opinion polls and acting as a Government in exile and actually get bold on policy and create a product that's different to the Government of the day. What do you think would be the things that we'd need to see over the next six to 12 months to show that Labor is actually meeting that challenge?
Well a good example of interest to the trade union movement is the quality of work. We need to attack the Liberal Party, the Liberal Government for overseeing a very severe deterioration in the quality of work in Australia. I'll just give you a couple of examples. Middle income jobs in Australia are disappearing. Over the last three years only 700 middle income jobs have been created while 464,000 low paid jobs have been created and we now have amongst in the Western world the second highest level of part-time employment in total employment. As a result of this basic working conditions have been lost: sick pay, holiday pay, superannuation and even the say in the number of hours worked. This has all happened under the stewardship of the Howard Coalition Government. So we should be attacking, and are attacking, the Government on that and they are proposing ways of improving the quality of work. Now in my portfolio area the best way of doing that is lifting the skills base of the Australian workforce. That means extra investment in education, training and innovation and on all those three fronts this Government has been an appalling failure
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