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Free Trade Agreement - time to criticise big brother

By Sebastian De Brennan - posted Wednesday, 22 February 2006

With the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) bearing the brunt of some formidable criticism recently, it is perhaps timely to review just how well our proposed trading partner is doing on other indicators.

The picture, I’m afraid, is not a pretty one.

Let’s be clear, the US-Australia FTA is first and foremost an economic arrangement. As such, any discussion that transcends the economic lexicon is unlikely to receive too much space in the broadsheets. Nevertheless, all Australians ought to be concerned about the seemingly unimportant moral considerations attendant in the agreement.


Australia was once regarded as a world leader and bastion of human rights. When nations, even superpowers, abrogated their responsibilities at international law, Australia was regarded as pretty vociferous for its global significance and size. In short, Australia had no qualms about telling other nations to “pull their head in”.

Indeed, once upon a time, Australia might have looked beyond the economic imperatives of a bilateral agreement. No doubt, reservations over the effects of a FTA on the local sugar industry, our intellectual property and the ongoing viability of a pharmaceutical benefits scheme would have been put stoutly, but they may not have been the only concerns raised.

In a different era, social, moral and other human rights issues might just have made the page.

What’s changed?

We live in volatile times. The verities of international trade, international criminal justice, the environment and, more recently, the scourge of terrorism represent but a few of the multifarious challenges facing nation states. The friction points are obvious - the Corby case, Australian police co-operation resulting in the arrest of the Bali Nine, the tension between free trade and human rights in the case of China, and the recent execution of young Australian Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore are just a few examples that reveal the inherent complexity of a globalised legal and economic order.

For all of these challenges, it is important to bear in mind that emergencies do come to an end, and we should not dig trenches for all time. For example, threats to national security in the form of terrorism are grave, perhaps even unprecedented, but principled and well-informed responses are not incongruent with the demands of balance and proportionality in a democratic country.


Ordinary Australians should be concerned, then, when our closest ally and proposed trading partner, continues to oppose a litany of important global treaties - treaties which have been acceded to by nations of all persuasions and ideologies.

Once an exemplar of democratic ideals, the recent contribution of the US to international law includes a decision to reject the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979, the convention is often described as the international bill of rights for women, defining what constitutes discrimination against women and establishing an agenda for national action to arrest it.

Today that treaty has been endorsed by more than 170 nations. However, while the entire industrial world fully supports the CEDAW, the United States is the only developed nation that continues to oppose it.

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About the Author

Sebastian De Brennan is principal of De Brennan & Co. Consulting and teaches in the College of Law & Business at the University of Western Sydney and the School of Business at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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