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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](