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Labor's greatest free trader

By Andrew Leigh - posted Thursday, 15 December 2005

Senator Peter Cook, who passed away recently, was one of the great figures of Australian public life. A senior minister in the governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, he held several portfolios, including industry, shipping, resources and industrial relations (where he was shadowed by John Howard). As an opposition senator, he chaired a slew of inquiries, including those into the GST, the "children overboard" affair and the choices faced by those with cancer.

But perhaps the issue on which Peter Cook's legacy will endure most is free trade. As a senator for Western Australia, Australia's most export-oriented state, he understood intuitively the benefits of an export-oriented culture.

Yet he also understood - as many politicians still do not - that the largest benefit from tariff reductions typically accrues to the country that lowers its trade barriers, not to its competitors.


The doctrine of comparative advantage - once described by US economist Paul Samuelson as the best example of a "true and non-trivial proposition" in the social sciences - was what prompted Labor governments under Whitlam, Hawke and Keating to reduce Australia's tariff rates. Negotiating as Australia's trade minister in the Uruguay world trade talks, Peter Cook helped bring the round home, boosting living standards worldwide.

Economic commentators today accept that both major political parties in Australia support open global markets, but it need not be thus. Even the great social democratic governments have at times been tempted to bow to protectionist sentiments, as US President Bill Clinton did when he torpedoed the Seattle trade talks in 1999. Returning with stories of how he and his wife Barbara had been caught up in the riots and tear gas, Peter Cook set about rewriting Labor's trade policy, so that its opening paragraph firmly committed the party to "free trade".

Where did his views about trade come from? In his blood, he was always an instinctive internationalist, as happy and at ease with a visiting Chinese delegation as with the Argentinean ambassador. He believed in ideas, enthusiastically carrying Amartya Sen's Democracy as Freedom with him to persuade colleagues that those who cared about poverty should believe in globalisation. And perhaps it helped that his passion was sailing, that most global of sports. When doctors told him he only had a year to live, Peter Cook told them what he thought of their prognosis by buying a 41-foot yacht.

Above all, Peter Cook had a gift for never losing track of what mattered, of cutting through the arcane complexity of trade agreements to deliver a message that would reach voters ("for a politician, (if) it isn't reported in the media, you might as well not have said it", he frequently reminded me). In an era where Labor's economic credentials are often questioned, he liked to point out that trade was one issue upon which the ALP was purer than the government. As trade economist Jagdish Bhagwati has pointed out, free trading multilateralism is far preferable to the spaghetti bowl of preferential trade agreements that have emerged in recent years.

At all times, Peter Cook kept his sense of humour and a generosity to those who worked around him, even when they did not deserve it. In 1999, a few months after starting work as his trade adviser, I issued a media release which mistakenly referred to the government's "budget deficit" instead of "trade deficit". Never one to miss a chance to talk about Labor's budget black hole, then trade minister Tim Fischer used the opportunity in question time to pillory Peter Cook for the error. My only rebuke came shortly afterwards, when a smiling Peter Cook appeared at my office door to say, "Mate, Tim Fischer had a go at you today in Question Time".

On the shores of Lake Geneva, the building that was once the International Labor Organisation is now the World Trade Organisation. Yet it still bears on its walls the original social realist murals, depicting workers battling for their rights. Peter Cook once remarked how fitting he found the building, melding the rights of labour with the principle that trade across national boundaries should be unfettered. The man once proposed as a leader of the ILO, Peter Cook could have been a fine head of either organisation.


It was their loss that he stayed in Australian politics, but our gain that he served for 22 years in our national parliament. We owe him much.

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First published in The Australian on December 5, 2005.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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