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Trade and public policy

For more than 30 years I negotiated, analyzed and advised on international trade agreements, mostly for governments (I was an Australian government official for about half of that time). Occasionally I consulted to private interests including industry and traders’ associations, chambers of commerce and sometimes firms caught-up in a ‘trade remedy’ action.

☞ You’ll find ten years of posts commenting on events and opportunities in the international trade system here on my site.

For reasons I’ve examined here, the momentum of trade agreements slowed after the Doha round collapsed at the end of 2008. Australia’s trade negotiations program slipped into neutral as bilateral trade negotiations with North and East Asia ran into the sand.

Then Andrew Robb, Trade Minister in Tony Abbott’s conservative government concluded negotiations with Korea, Japan and China within a year; mostly by deciding to accept what was on the table after a decade of talks. (He was helped in each case by the rapid collapse of the Australian automobile manufacturing industry faced with low protection and an end to subsidies.) Overall, with trade growth tanking due largely to China’s weaker demand outlook, it was time to make the best of the situation and move on… to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP negotiations absorbed a lot of official energies for five or six years, but President Trump decided — apparently on poor advice — not to seek ratification of the final draft. It is not clear from the (scant) economic modeling that TPP offered great value. Still, the final draft was significant for Australia to the extent that it committed us to zeroing of our tariff at last (on a preferential basis, certainly, but across a very big share of our trade; the same treatment had been extended separately to China in the AUSCHN FTA). The negative list on services trade is much more difficult to parse; it may be nothing more than a sort of policy standstill. More analytical work is needed there. The Investment chapter looks good on paper (still, the wretched “national interest” test is preserved) and the IP chapter appears no more noxious than feared (but we had already betrayed proportionality in the AUSFTA).

As for WTO… Although the Organisation and Treaty still provide essential services (including Dispute Settlement), it is looking more and more like a placeholder for whatever comes next. The formal multilateral framework of international commercial exchange is flaccid and tottering. The Trade Facilitation Agreement reached in 2013 — the only new WTO Agreement in 20 years — is a statement of intention rather than a contract with binding obligations.

I remain engaged in policy-analysis activities; I continue to teach in the Masters of International Trade & Development at the University of Adelaide (below).

In February 2015, I completed a centennial history of the International Chamber of Commerce; probably the strongest and certainly the most enduring and consistent advocate of private enterprise and liberal trade policies through the 20th century. Publication has, however, been postponed by the ICC until 2019 which is the centenary of its formal constitution (although not of its conception). Problems of data and scope posed quite a few challenges for me: the final draft is, necessarily, a sort of history of the world economy from 1914 to 2014 interwoven with the political economy of this remarkable institution. Fortunately, there were also some intriguing characters who played an important role in ICC’s history as they did, too, in the history of government and business. Their stories lift the narrative.

Human (medical) research ethics

For more than a decade, I’ve been fortunate to have been appointed to the Ethics committee of [a major public hospital]( “the Alfred Ethics site”) in Melbourne, with a large research and teaching portfolio. The hospital has a leading reputation in trauma research and an associated institution is a well-recognised centre for “first-in-man” trials of drugs and devices. It’s exciting to observe the front-lines of medical research and care, although rapidly improving technologies sometimes make knotty problems out of once-straightforward ethical choices.

There’s another interest for me, too. The foundations of what we now call empiricism began with medical research. The most active members of the Royal Society (and of the Académie des Sciences, for that matter) in the late 17th Century — where the ‘scientific method‘ first secured a rhetorical beach-head — were physicians, many of them students of the great empirical anatomist William Harvey. Still today, evidence-based public policy finds its conceptual roots in the medical sciences.


I’m teaching graduate students at Adelaide University the political economy of trade and a research-methods course that grows out of my interest in the use of statistics (and visual presentation of data) to represent the complex interactions of world markets and production. I’m a long-time devotee — amateur, in every sense — of [the statistical language “R”]( “the R project”) and have begun to use it in the [course materials](