Monday, August 09, 2004

FTA: bad politics drives out good economics - Ross Gittins: "In John Howard's pre-election search for another Tampa, the best he's come up with so far is the free trade agreement with the United States. As a wedge issue the trade deal doesn't have nearly the same populist appeal as the need to defend our shores against marauding refugees, of course, but the parallels with Tampa are surprisingly strong. The key to wedge politics - to hammering an issue that drives a wedge through the other side's ranks - is to find a populist subject about which your own supporters have no moral qualms but the other side's supporters have plenty.

"The Labor Party is highly susceptible to wedging because it contains a majority of pragmatists who think they have no choice but to bow to populism, but a large minority who can't see the point of being in politics if you don't stand up for your principles. Kim Beazley's Labor ended up supporting the Government on Tampa but this did it no good. It took too long making up its mind to impress those potential Labor voters living in fear of being overrun by boat people but still alienated those misguided souls believing even refugees were entitled to humane treatment."

"The FTA was shaping up as a junior Tampa. The majority of the shadow cabinet felt they had no choice but to tick it, while the minority couldn't see why they should acquiesce in such a bad deal for the economy.... Leading the outcry would have been the Murdoch press, whose American lord and master stands to gain from the US Government's efforts to make the world a cushier place for US exporters of intellectual property, such as Twentieth Century Fox."

"Suffice to say the Opposition Leader has shown himself to be surprisingly adroit at sidestepping Mr Howard's attempted wedges.... It's been reported and widely rumoured that the people closest to negotiating the deal wanted to walk away from it when the Americans proved so intransigent, particularly on agriculture. And when President Bush declined to yield any concessions after Mr Howard phoned him with a personal appeal. But Mr Howard insisted the bad deal be accepted. Why? Because of the loss of face the Man of Steel would suffer when it became known his mateship with Dubya counted for so little. Because he had to show something good had come from our participation in the Iraq war."

"With business economists, their masters are so fearful of offending the Government they're not even allowed to say what they really think about a drunken-sailor budget, much less something so far out of their bailiwick as a trade deal. With business itself, most of the key industry groups were squared away privately during and immediately after the deal's negotiation. The sugar lobby, of course, was bribed in public. I suspect that, after eight years in office, the Government has got it through to the business lobbies that, if they want to put their case to the minister in private, the price is never to criticise in public and always to give forth approving noises whenever a new policy is announced.... If, as I fear, the nation lives to regret the economic sovereignty it's giving away in the FTA, history will hold it against the memory of one John Howard. But we will all share the blame for allowing ourselves to be railroaded."

In this article Gittins seems for once to have jettisoned his patronising 'economics editor' style for something with some genuine bite and sting. Yet another sign of how people formerly regarded as 'conservative' find themselves left behind by the relentless drift to the right.

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