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Not much free about this “free” trade agreement

By Michael Cebon | March 5, 2009

I guess I should write a bit about the Australia-ASEAN-NZ Free Trade Agreement (FTA) which was signed over the weekend in Thailand – it’s Australia’s biggest regional FTA to date.

The mining industry loves it since it will let them export more Australian minerals to Asia. And the Textile Clothing & Footwear Union hates it, since

Accelerating tariff reductions hurt Australian manufacturers and their workers, this FTA further reduces the scheduled reductions which were announced close to a decade ago.

But a much more significant question is: what do the 560 million citizens of ASEAN – those who will be most affected by this agreement – think of it?

The answer is that it’s extremely difficult to tell, because (and this is something no-one in the media has mentioned, as far as I can find) only 3 of ASEAN’s 10 member nations have any sort of democratic processes to speak of. (I’m counting Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand as democracies here, which leaves Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Cambodia, Laos, Burma/Myanmar, and Vietnam, which are all – more or less – dictatorships).

I’ve made the point before that negotiating a “free” trade agreement with a dictatorship is worse than unfair – it’s anti-democratic.

In Australia, while trade negotiators are not elected, they are constrained by an elected government and parliament who must justify their actions to Australian citizens.  In Australia, an attentive and critical press and opposition political parties help to make sure any deal is really in the interests of Australian citizens.  While these protections are not always successful – witness the passing of the US-Australia FTA which was clearly a damaging deal for Australia –the fact that checks and balances exist at least gives trade negotiations some legitimacy.

In dictatorships like China [and 7 of the ASEAN nations], unelected and unaccountable governments face no such “inconvenient” constraints.  There is no system of checks and balances by which citizens might feel that their interests are properly protected from a government known for its high level of corruption.  There is no free media and no opposition to scrutinise the deal which is negotiated.  Indeed, there is no requirement that the dictators even consider the interests of the people over whom they rule.

What right does the Australian government have to impose a free trade agreement on the peoples of ASEAN, without any sort of systems in place to represent their views or interests (rather than the views or interests of their rulers) in negotiations?

And how many Australians want a free trade agreement with vicious, murderous regimes like Burma’s military junta anyway?

Topics: Australian Trade Policy, Bilateral FTAs | 1 Comment »

One Response to “Not much free about this “free” trade agreement”

  1. Paul Holland Says:
    March 6th, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    A free trade policy, ie a ‘real’ one is an essential component for third world countries to move out of poverty – only a component, not the answer. It is poor nations that revert to or adopt government models dissimilar to democracies. Wealth creates capitalist/free market/democratic systems of government. There are many distinctions between ‘dictatorships’ and ‘totalitarian’ government models. For instance, most dictatorships don’t have elections whereas many totalitarian governments such as China do. There is a component of democracy even within Red China as there was behind the iron curtain. The transition between a Red China form of communism and democracy is not such a huge step, particularly now that China is adopting a captitalist model. What I am saying here is that we should be dealing with everyone, even Burma, because the best way of ousting a cruel totalitarian regime is to make its citizenry rich. There are some totalitarian regimes that are extremely benevolent, eg Brunei. For instance, the United Nations would have best defeated the Taliban by bombing the country with money instead of spending it on weapons of mass destruction.