The ACTU supports fair trade as a vehicle for economic growth, job creation, tackling inequality and raising living standards. The most important objective of trade policy should be to deliver benefits to workers, the community and the economy by increasing opportunities for local businesses, creating quality local jobs, and protecting public services. The benefits of trade must be shared among our community and promote equitable development abroad. We have longstanding concerns, however, about a trade agenda which places the needs of business above all else – where businesses and investors enjoy significant rights with few responsibilities – jeopardising local jobs, undermining working conditions, and compromising the ability of current and future Australian Governments to regulate in the public interest.
The need for a more open and democratic process for trade agreements is more important than ever now because they are no longer simply tariff deals: they increasingly deal with an expanding range of other regulatory issues which would normally be debated and legislated through the democratic parliamentary process, and which have deep impacts on workers’ lives.
The process for negotiating trade agreements must be reformed: trade agreements must be subject to proper scrutiny and unions, civil society and business stakeholders should have the opportunity for genuine input into the negotiations on behalf of those they represent. Trade agreement negotiations are currently conducted behind closed doors, and Australia lags behind other likeminded countries when it comes to transparency and public scrutiny of agreements.
The content of our trade agreements must also be reformed: for too long Australia has put forward negotiating priorities that only benefit business and are detrimental to the interests of workers and our communities here in Australia, and abroad. Unions have long called for the Australian Government to not sign up to trade agreements that contain damaging provisions such as Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) – which enables private investors to sue the Government for changes to laws and regulation that may impinge on their profits – and to ensure that agreements they sign up to have enforceable labour standards to protect workers’ rights, among other things. It is clear Australia’s approach to negotiating trade agreements has not served the community as a whole. We are calling for a reformed trade policy that puts the Australian community at the centre – workers and our communities must be genuinely consulted on trade agreements, and our Parliament must have democratic oversight.
A case in point is this upgrade to the AANZFTA being considered by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. This is the first opportunity for any public scrutiny of this agreement – indeed, it is only now that the union movement is being consulted on this proposed agreement. The ACTU has made a comprehensive submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth inquiry that is currently underway into Australia’s approach to negotiating trade and investment agreements. We make a number of recommendations for legislating reforms to the process and content of Australia’s trade negotiations to improve democratic accountability and the quality of our trade agreements that we urge the Government to implement as a matter of priority before progressing the ratification of this (or any other) trade agreement.