The inconsistencies of Labor’s trade policy evidently still vex caucus, with members of the left this week again pushing back against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Labor has decided to wave through parliament despite repeatedly raising concerns about its provisions and having a policy position against key aspects of the secretly negotiated deal. Legislation for the deal went through the House of Representatives last night, despite the fact that even the TPP’s spruikers admit its benefits will take over a decade to reach a grand total of less than two days’ extra national income a year.

Labor is backing the revised TPP despite its provisions for investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) and waiving labour market testing and despite Labor’s own policy of never signing up to a deal with ISDS ever again. The Augustinian logic presented by Jason Clare and the party leadership seems to be that they’ll sign on to a deal with ISDS this one last time, but never again, right?

If backing a deal despite it being against Labor policy is confusing enough, yesterday Bill Shorten offered a trade policy that is, by any objective measure, utterly incomprehensible but which these days passes unnoticed. Asked about the China-Trump trade war, Shorten declared “it is greatly concerning the mounting trade protectionist barriers between the United States and China.” But he didn’t express concern about the impact on the global economy, with its flow-on effects to our own, or about the degradation of a rules-based international trade regime, or that this is the sort of stuff that has preceded world wars, but instead worried about … Australians being able to buy cheaper imports. 

If you’ve got product made in either country, which usually goes between the United States and China, and because of tariff walls cannot enter the United States or China, this product needs to find a home. And we have a very open borders in Australia. I am greatly concerned that Australian industry could be the innocent bystander victim of a trade war between China and the United States. It is long past time for the government to explain how we are provisioning and protecting Australian industry from the consequences of product from China or the United States coming to Australia because it can’t go to each other’s country.

So according to Labor the biggest issue from a global trade war is Aussie consumers and businesses might benefit from being able to buy cheaper imports. Really. And Shorten wants stronger anti-dumping laws, despite regular laws to “level the playing field” in recent years. Labor has “some very sensible proposals to strengthen the anti-dumping laws in Australia,” he says.

Let’s sum up Shorten’s position. He’s very concerned about “the mounting trade protectionist barriers between the United States and China” so in response he wants to raise our protectionist trade barriers — barriers that already cost our construction industry alone $2 billion a year

Did the government, via new trade minister Simon Birmingham, call Labor out on this hypocrisy? Good god no. The political class is one giant happy family when it comes to protectionism. “Our government strengthened the anti-dumping regime to prevent possible diversion of dumped or heavily subsidised goods,” Birmingham said.

Yep, those filthy foreigners — how dare they try to give Australian consumers and businesses the benefit of cheaper imports! Australia should respond to two global giants engaging in the economic equivalent of punching themselves in the face by giving itself a black eye. That’ll show ’em.

Peter Fray

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