The Cairns Group of agricultural exporting nations, headed by Australia, has been allowed to whither on the vine by a lacklustre Trade Minister, Mark Vaile, Labor’s Foreign Affairs Spokesman, Kevin Rudd believes.
Addressing the Canberra branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary meeting of the group in the North Queensland city which gave it its name, Mr Rudd wondered whether the National Party - “a fading political force” - still has the talent within its ranks to handle the challenging and complex trade portfolio.
“Firstly Mr Vaile has allowed the G-20, headed by Brazil, to supplant the Cairns Group as the recognised third force in World Trade Organisation agricultural negotiations,” he said.
“Secondly there is no evidence that he has put forward an effective formal Australian proposal to bridge the negotiating gap between the European Union, the Americans and the G-20.
“Thirdly there is no evidence of either Mr Vaile or Mr Howard having embarked upon a systematic global diplomatic campaign, either in denunciation of the continued obscene levels of agricultural protection by the EU and the Americans, or in effective backing of any particular proposal on agricultural tariffs, domestic support or export subsidies to bridge the gap between the principles.
“Finally, it increasingly appears that because of domestic distractions, combined with a deep disinterest in policy, neither Mr Vaile or for that matter, the National Party as a whole, have been up to the complex and challenging task mounted by the onerous trade portfolio.”
It is not surprising that Mr Rudd is protective of the Cairns Group, which was set up in 1986 under the Hawke Labor Government, and which until at least the establishment of the G-20 in 2003 was the principle international negotiating body representing the interests of free traders.
There is a body of opinion that believes the Cairns Group has become less aggressive in pursuing the free-market agenda in recent years, with the Howard Government switching its emphasis to securing better deals for Australia alone through a series of bilateral free trade agreements. That may well have prompted a number of developing agricultural exporters to jump on the G-20 bandwagon. However, the G-20’s more confrontational approach is likely to lead to the entrenchment of positions on all sides and the inevitable collapse of the current Doha Development Round of trade negotiations.
As Mr Rudd says, the G-20 has a lesser commitment to liberalising its own agricultural markets than in liberalising the markets of OECD economies. That may well resonate with those who favour a massive and immediate transfer of wealth from rich to poor countries, but is unlikely to find much sympathy among political realists in Washington or the European capitals.
The fact remains that the emergence of the G-20 has fractured the voice of agricultural trade liberalisation and as a result Australia’s negotiating position on the multilateral stage has been diluted. This is putting the already fragile Doha Round in danger, and if it collapses Australia must bear its share of the responsibility.
Can anything be done to save Doha? That will depend on how actively Mr Vaile and Mr Howard support the meeting in Cairns this week. If it simply becomes a 20th anniversary back-slapping exercise then it will certainly continue to fade into irrelevance, with desertions of many of its members to the G-20, leaving it a rich, largely white club barely extending beyond Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
If, on the other hand, Australia grasps the nettle and seeks to lead the group towards a compromise position that will keep the Doha Round alive, embarking on a round of diplomacy for the remainder of this year and into the next before American attention inevitably turns inwards in the lengthy lead up to its 2008 presidential election, there is still hope.
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