Coalition policy gives manufacturing bosses a seat at trade negotiations, not farmers, unions or other groups

An obscure clause buried in the Liberal-National Coalition’s manufacturing policy says they will ‘appoint at least one industry representative who will be directly included in the negotiation of Free Trade Agreements’. The policy is on p.14 of the Coalition Manufacturing policy released last week. As it was not in the Coalition trade policy, AFTINET only became aware of it today, after we had sent out our comparison of parties’ trade policies.

This is an extraordinary and probably unworkable policy for three reasons.

Firstly, it refers to overseas practice, but it is not the practice of any other comparable government to include any industry or other non-government representatives directly in trade negotiations at the negotiating table. For example, the US has industry, union and civil society trade advisers who are consulted closely about trade agreements and are allowed to see and comment on versions of the text, but they are sworn to secrecy and they are not present at the negotiating table. Negotiators are supposed to be representatives of the national interest of the country, not of particular sectional interests.

Secondly, the policy privileges manufacturing employers above all other industries, like farmers. The Coalitions’ agricultural policy has no such provision.

Thirdly, the policy privileges manufacturing employers above civil society representatives like unions, churches, environmental, public health or other AFTINET groups which have interests in different aspects of the negotiations.

Over the past decade, including under the Howard government, the practice has been for some consultation on trade agreements to take place with employer groups, unions and other civil society groups. However, none of these groups have been allowed to sit at the negotiating table. This is a one-sided proposal which would call into question whether Australian negotiators were acting in the national interest.

AFTINET supports more transparency and consultation in trade negotiations, including publication of the text of trade agreements before they are signed by governments, to enable public and parliamentary debate. But we oppose the direct involvement of sectional interests in trade negotiations, which are supposed to be conducted by government trade negotiators representing the national interest. Please consider this when you make your assessment of the parties’ trade policies.