“… dun-coloured shawls will tone beautifully with local scenery as leaders return home to rust-belts left by the close of local manufacturing caused by free trade … “
APEC 2016 ends not with a bang but a whimper from Stockholm syndrome victim Malcolm Turnbull who begs our US corporate captors to keep flogging us with a TPP; expanding multinational power over us and favouring the USA in trade. Turnbull, a National Party hostage, has already astonished Australia with his devotion to his captors. His protestations of TPP love on a world stage allow him to indulge his perverse illness in a forum stacked with fellow-sufferers.
Flagellation deprivation aside, after decades of fawning and grovelling, Australia’s need to be independent of the US must come as a shock. Painful. When the road is long even slippers feel tight, as they say in Peru. Turnbull’s plaintive plea for Donald Trump to keep APEC’s trade accord, the infant TPP is, naturally quickly rebuffed. The US president-elect reiterates his threats. He will drop the new-born TPP on its head from the top of Trump Tower.
“From day one of my presidency”, he vows to withdraw in a YouTube video. “TPP is a potential disaster for our country.”
Trump alone will not kill the DOA TPP, despite his triumphal boasts. His adversary, Hillary Clinton who now leads him by over two million popular votes was not sold on the deal. Above all, the TPP attracted six years’ concerted popular opposition in prospective member countries. Australian critics compared it with the US-Australia Free Trade agreement, a trade deal debacle, ABC’s Ian Verrender points out, that buggered Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, limited the Commonwealth’s power to price medicines cheaply, and contributed to the soaring costs of our health system.
When in 1940, Australia set up its PBS, the Australian government used a “reference pricing” scheme to keep medicines affordable to ordinary Australians. Signing up to AUSTFA a decade ago made that illegal. Instead, medicines were linked to patents. In 2007 the PBS was split into two different formularies, boosting the cost of medicines to consumers by effectively delaying access to cheaper, generic drugs by an average of three years. Patent holders could, however, use “ever greening” to extend the length of the patent’s life from 20 to 25 to 40 to 50 years.
Top marks for chutzpah and Trump chump of the week award, nevertheless, must go to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop who rushes to her ABC to reassure the nation that we will still cop a flogging even if the TPP is history. The Donald will not do away with AUSTFA, the Australia US Free Trade Agreement. Relax. It’s a dud deal. “We run a trade deficit with the United States. The US has a considerable surplus so it’s unlikely to change.” She means YUGE, OK, Donald.
In 2015, the US was our second-largest two-way trading partner in goods and services, worth $70.2 billion. Australia’s goods exports to the United States were $14.2 billion. Australia’s total imports from the United States were $33.0 billion in 2015. Our bilateral services exports to the US were worth $7.9 billion and imports $15.1 billion in 2015.
Bishop skips the best bit. In ten years, ANU’s Shiro Armstrong calculates, the preferential trade agreement has diverted Australia’s trade away from the lowest-cost sources. AUSTFA has led to Australia and the United States reducing their trade with the rest of the world by US$53 billion making them worse off than they would have been without the agreement. Imports to Australia and the United States from the rest of the world fell by $37.5 billion.
Then there’s the bondage. Exports to the rest of the world from the two countries fell by $15.6 billion over eight years to 2012. Australia is forced away from competitive suppliers to those dependent on the agreement . Yet trade between the two nations has not increased while the growth of trade with East Asian nations has been held back.
AUSTFA, like all free trade agreements, is neither about free trade nor even about trade, it is about realpolitik. US sycophant and man of well-oiled steel, John Howard, eager for a deal with George W Bush, after the second US invasion of Iraq, rushed the agreement through in one year. Similarly, the TPP advances US corporate interests and counters China’s expanding influence. Consequently, Washington’s current administration is loath to let it go. Blocking the TPP is “handing the keys of the castle over to China”, Obama’s trade negotiator, Michael Froman, worries.
At least the Chinese are cheered. Trump’s threat is a green light to China’s campaign to reign supreme in the region. Their Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RECP as they call their new empire involves the 10 members of ASEAN, plus their regional trading partners China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India. The RECP is a TPP knock off with just as much free trade hymn-singing but with fewer, lower regulatory standards. Red-devil developers who don’t mind a bit of asbestos in their cheap as chips roof-panels or who like to take a bit of a gamble on their bargain structural steel holding up will be delighted at the prospect of less red tape in the way of profiteering.
China is tucking into the Asia-Pacific noodle-bowl with gusto; last month it signed up Malaysia, Cambodia and The Philippines in a blitz of cheque-book diplomacy, billion dollar trade, aid and investment deals. It’s picking off pro-US ASEAN nations opposed to its territorial claims on The South China Sea, through which flows $A6.7 trillion worth of cargo; half the world’s trade. For Kim Beazley, the Obama administration’s insertion of the US into Asia is about to come undone under Trump, yet Australia’s response is just wait and see: let Turnbull twang on his banjo about the TPP.
Mercifully Turnbull is quickly eclipsed by the APEC leaders’ silly shirts photo, a big part of its annual free trade gab-fest . But there’s a twist. The dominant paradigm is subverted their year by host Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, President of Peru. Crafty Kuczynski, in the only surprise move in APEC’s entire history, kits out his twenty-one visiting dignitaries in natty Peruvian vicuna wool shawls. The dun-coloured shawls will tone beautifully with local scenery as leaders return home to rust-belts left by the close of local manufacturing in nations where wages stubbornly remain over a dollar a day.
Factory closures, the ruin of local manufacturing and the destruction of entire communities are only part of the tithe demanded by the free trade agreement god. Free trade agreement worship also requires that leaders gather at APEC to make their ritual oath of solidarity before returning home to undermine each other’s prosperity and make war on the planet. Lima’s air is the most polluted of any Latin America city. Copper, silver, gold, mercury, and zinc mining, unchecked by generations of corrupt governments, has poisoned the local water supply and hastened deforestation.
Luckily, the versatile vicuna shawl doubles as an air filter, shade sail or towel. In the APEC family photo the shawls could almost be soiled beach towels thrown over one shoulder as if heads of state are returning from a dip in a toxic local waterhole. Or, perhaps, a dip in the ocean has led to their entanglement with the Pacific trash vortex, that gyre of marine debris which is yet another environmental blessing industrialisation confers upon the planet which is boosted by free trade. The pollution is augmented by marine debris liberated by container ships, over-fishing trawlers and other vessels busily extending the tentacles of grasping free-traders; choking the globe’s waterways.
Turnbull wants Trump to agree to parts of the TPP which he says will benefit Australia, as if any part of it is non-toxic. In June, even our Productivity Commission slammed the TPP and other recent free trade deals because “they grant legal rights to foreign investors not available to Australians, expose the government to potentially large unfunded liabilities and add extra costs on businesses attempting to comply with them.” But no-one in the Coalition listens.
The TPP, driven by big business including big tobacco, and big pharma was invented to benefit huge multi-nationals and to help the USA counter China’s growing regional rivalry. Thanks largely to former Trade Minister, Andrew Robb, the man who unfroze Labor’s glacial negotiations by agreeing with everything the USA demanded, the TPP is an article of faith in Liberal ideology. Yet no Liberal can ever spell out its benefits. On the other hand, its ISDS provisions would allow foreign companies to sue Australian governments over public health policy and environmental protection laws. Prices for medicine, would rise while our internet usage would incur greater surveillance.
Australians may be spared the TPP thanks to the Donald’s popular isolationism but should he carry out his threat to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, or enact any of his promised protectionist trade measures, Australia could be in for a bumpy ride. Luckily our crack team at DFAT, headed by show pony Julie Bishop and with jolting Joe Hockey strategically deployed Trump-side, has come up with a brilliant game plan. Denial. So far the government’s position is that The Donald is just bluffing about his trade and foreign policy. Never happen. Yet the evidence, from his transition team appointments, his recent attacks on the media, to his release of a video denouncing the TPP attest otherwise.
Luckily there is a big win for the government this week as Mike Baird nobbles ICAC by passing a law which replaces the current commissioner with not one head but three and makes a few running alterations which mean that property developers can be a lot more relaxed and comfortable if not brazen exhibitionists about getting back into bed with the Liberal Party. Profiteering out of buying and selling property now reclaims its rightful place as the moral mainstay of an agile and innovative nation. Real estate speculation can now come out from under the doona and mount the victors’ podium atop resource extraction and labour exploitation as number one engine of our 21st Century economy.
A knackered ICAC will restore the party’s fortunes in many ways. Perhaps Arthur Sinodinos may even recover his memory. A frighteningly re-energised screaming Scott Morrison is out of the blocks already; his sights fixed on filling developers’ pockets. He talks all over a fawning Lee Sales on 7:30. Gotta increase supply. Relax zoning. Release land on the edge of town. No jobs, no transport but by God it will sell well. He’s all worked up to distract us from party-poopers Deloitte Access Economics whose forecast this week joins other experts who warn that as treasurer Morrison is a hopeless joke. His binge-spending coupled with his denial of his revenue problem is rapidly increasing the deficit.
When the government finally “puts out the garbage” by releasing its budget update at the last possible minute if not the night before Christmas, the blowout will be about $24 billion over four years, a total of $108 billion. Despite the deficit being comparatively low by international comparison, our externally sourced private debt – much of it invested in housing via the banking system – is among the highest in the world.
Lowest on record is PM Turnbull’s approval even according to Newspoll which has the PM on -20. It’s four troughs down and twenty-six to go, by the formula Turnbull used to topple Abbott. Confidence in Turnbull to manage the economy has dropped below 50% for the first time. Essential and Newspoll have Labor ahead 53-47%. Given this and the economic bad news, what can any hopelessly divided, incompetent Coalition do but get into the gutter with Trump?
Peter “dog-whistle” Dutton plays the race card again. Ignorance and bigotry are his strongest suit. Last week’s shameful attack on Lebanese migrants is extended in parliament in a bid to wedge Labor on immigration or paint them as soft on border protection.
“The advice I have,” he tells the parliament, “is that out of the last 33 people who have been charged with terrorist-related offences in this country, 22 of those people are from second- and third-generation Lebanese Muslim background. The hyped up figure is repeated even by those who protest his bigotry despite its flaky nature. Teenagers posting on Facebook boost the dodgy statistic. Yet if Dutton has his way, even challenging his figures will become a terrorism-related offence.
The paragon of border control who spends $400,000 a year on every refugee locked up, the genius who chooses to further torture refugees on Manus and Nauru with false hope by airing a deal with the US which is clearly dead in the water is not shy of attacking Malcolm Fraser. “Mistakes were made” in his refugee program. Labor challenges him to be specific. He can’t.
“The reality,” he says, “is Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in the 1970s and we’re seeing that today.” Fraser should have been able to eyeball refugees then and pick which ones would bear terrorist-related offending grandchildren. In a payback to a dead man who dared criticise his punitive detention and off-shore torture policy, the classy Dutton argues in effect that Australia should be admitting only the right kind of refugee, the immigrant who fits in and eagerly assimilates. It’s a preposterous rationing of human compassion and a wilful denial of the government’s own non-selective policy and the UN Refugee Convention. It explains the delay in Syrian refugee arrivals.
Posturing as a moderate against a “tricky Bill Shorten”, Dutton ends up wedging Turnbull who is daily revealed to be a weak leader, our weakest Prime Minister ever, who must appease his right wing captors at all costs even if it means indulging overt racist hate-speak in parliament. Each time Dutton gets into the gutter he drags his captive Prime Minister down with him.
Worse. For WA Labor MP Anne Aly, Dutton’s dog-whistling evokes several immediate threats of bodily harm. A Facebook post next day reads ” I would love to kill you and poison your family. ” Another reads “Peter Dutton was right,” referring to “Leb thugs”. “Pack your bags and piss off back to where you came from and take all of your terrorist faith with you.”
Turnbull’s failure to censure his Minister makes him complicit in these attacks. The closest he comes is to send Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop out to ride shotgun in damage control. Bishop claims absurdly that the Immigration Minister was misquoted. He meant that 1970s support systems for refugees were not up to today’s world class standard.
Compromising himself utterly in truth or leadership stakes, Turnbull plunges to new depths of cringing servitude to his right wing in praising Dutton for “doing an outstanding job” when, under any other PM, his minister’s record in breach duty of care alone would be grounds for dismissal.
A Senate committee hearing last year, was told by Immigration that it had received 14 reports of sexual assault, 213 of physical assault and 798 of abusive behaviour in the offshore processing centre on Manus Island. The Guardian published files of 2000 incident reports of injury from self-harm, sexual assaults, child abuse, hunger strikes, assaults and injuries written by guards, caseworkers and teachers between 2013-15. Dutton disputed, dismissed or diminished the reports and has so far done nothing to demonstrate his ministerial responsibility for those in his care.
Dutton’s “outstanding” record suggests callous indifference if not cruelty as well as neglect. He called Samantha Maiden “a mad fucking witch”. A month elapsed before he would even acknowledge the plight of Abyan, a 23 year old Somali woman, pregnant after she was raped on Nauru. Later, awaiting an abortion, Abyan was deported from a hospital bed.
Dutton’s typical response to news of his torture regime is to attack the messenger. He has repeatedly attacked the ABC as being on a Jihad against him, or having a left-wing bias. He has falsely accused refugee advocates of causing or coaching asylum seekers to self-harm. He has even claimed that refugees and asylum-seekers in his care “self-immolate” in order to be deported to mainland Australia. His outbursts are irrational, unreasonable, even paranoid.
Shock therapy is called for if Turnbull is to resuscitate his government. He must dismiss Dutton immediately. He must also dump Trump and tear up the US-Australia so-called Free Trade agreement; liberate our trade with our closest neighbours. DFAT should be planning now for an independent strategic and trade policy in which China is in ascendancy and the USA is in retreat.
The PM needs to meet the rise of Trump not by getting into the gutter with him, not by attacking Fraser but by following Fraser’s late example of tolerance and humanity. He must counter Baird’s attack on honesty and integrity in politics with a federal ICAC. Above all he needs to assert himself over his rabidly right wing captors. Tear up his Faustian pact with the Nationals. He has nothing to lose but his whips and his chains.