28 April 2020

There has never been a better time to be an anti-globalisation protectionist.

The COVID-19 pandemic has closed borders, destroyed global supply chains, curbed migration, further weakened the world's multilateral institutions and created fresh trade barriers as countries restrict the export and supply of food and crucial medical equipment.

While international institutions are on life support, populist sentiment is claiming that globalisation is dead and that isolationist politics will prevail.

The US has paused funding the World Health Organisation over its handling of COVID-19. The World Trade Organisation had already been left to wither, with negative consequences for Australia.

While both organisations should confront some home truths and welcome considered reform, strong and effective global health and trade institutions are needed now more than ever.

Liberal democratic nations shuffling away from the multilateral institutions they helped to create serves only to create a vacuum of leadership, right when leadership is what the world needs.

Governments around the world feel compelled to adopt a measure of protectionism because international cooperation is increasingly difficult.

For those supporting the open trading system, it is a tricky balancing act to protect the public from profiteering while keeping vital trading relationships on course and open.

Australia has also had to implement protections against immoral opportunists bulk-buying critical supplies and profiteering from their export.

In a targeted measure, Australia has recently banned the export of a small range of medical equipment by those not ordinarily in the export business.

This is a sensible measure that stops short of outright trade restrictions adopted by many nations, but it is a restriction that some free-traders will not be happy with.

So far, more than 70 countries have banned or placed heavy restrictions on the export of protective equipment, medical devices or medicines.

A detailed analysis conducted by the reputable Global Trade Alert concludes that widespread concern of a global dependence on a tiny number of exporters of medical personal protective equipment (PPE) is misplaced as there is little evidence for any nation having a stranglehold of the supply of PPE.

Nevertheless, countries are keeping medical goods for themselves, they say, to protect the health of their citizens.

Last year, the Australian government dipped its toes in murky water with Prime Minister Scott Morrison ordering an audit of Australia's role in international organisations as part of a speech in which he railed against the threat of "negative globalism".

But as bureaucrats have toiled on the audit, the coronavirus has spread rapidly across the globe, rendering the need for Australia's involvement in strong global architecture and international alliances even more acute.

Now the Prime Minister speaks of strengthening our "economic sovereignty" as he pushes for a boost in domestic production of some manufactured goods including medical equipment and pharmaceuticals.

There have always been good reasons for Australia to pursue sovereign industrial capabilities. Labor has long argued the case for lifting local manufacturing capacity that compliments and builds on our comparative advantages.

But suspect anti-internationalist rhetoric in times of crisis must be avoided.

A shortage of respirators, ventilators and other equipment in Australia or elsewhere does not signal a failure of globalisation. It's a failure by governments to plan adequately for a pandemic emergency.

The sensible planned stockpiling of essential medical equipment is reasonable. But if every nation became its own main supplier of such equipment, healthcare costs would soar.

Of course, we can – and should – make more things here.

More investment in research and development would help to boost our high-end manufacturing capabilities without the need to protect inefficient domestic industries through unsustainable government subsidies.

Advanced manufacturing will move the economy up the ladder of complexity so we can begin to export more expensive high-value things.

But while Australia is sometimes pejoratively referred to as Asia's quarry, our world-leading resources sector is a highly productive model of efficiency that the nation simply cannot do without if we are to recover from the economic ramifications of COVID-19.

Our greatest strength remains the extraordinary resources sector, which continues to meet production targets in the face of the COVID-19 disruption and is on track to export commodities this year worth an astonishing $300 billion.

So it is important to remember that the resources sector and a boosted advanced manufacturing sector will depend on an open global trading system.

As an open trading nation, Australia is more exposed than most to the global economic downturn sparked by this health crisis.

According to the WTO, the pandemic may cause a deeper collapse of international trade flows than at any time in the post-war era. Global merchandise trade is expected to fall between 13 per cent and 32 per cent this year.

Despite the incredibly gloomy outlook, we must remain engaged with the world because our recovery from COVID-19 will depend on access to global markets and a continued inflow of foreign capital.

We need Australian leadership in rebuilding the global trading system and in restoring faith in the WTO and the international rules-based system that has benefited this country for almost 80 years.

And for the sake of global health and avoiding future pandemics, China must be open and transparent about the origins of COVID-19.

It's in both countries' interests to have a productive relationship, including robust trade.

Trade can save us. Open trade will be an integral component of our economic recovery. We must look outwards despite the challenges we face and the fear that lurks beneath the surface.

Now is not the time for insularity 

This opinion piece was first published in The Australian Financial Review on Tuesday, 28 April 2020.