As far as Donald Trump is concerned, the Trans Pacific Partnership is dead. President Trump (get used to saying it) has put a big black line through the TPP, and it is no more.
Unless you are Malcolm Turnbull, or Trade Minister Steve Ciobo. For them, the TPP is like the Monty Python parrot, not dead, just resting. And, in the meantime, it is a useful stick to beat up on Bill Shorten.
The ALP is now eight points up in the polls, about as bad as things ever were under Tony Abbott. Government seems unable to turn a trick, lurching from one crisis to another. It is highly reactive, seemingly without an agenda or a purpose.
So, when the Prime Minister was asked about the TPP on Wednesday – the first time he has mentioned it since it was Trumped – he could do no better than make the usual woolly comments about free trade before launching into another attack on Bill Shorten.
Strong governments lead by example and get on with the job, ignoring the opposition. Weak governments live in the Opposition’s shadow, and are only able to measure their own efforts by comparing them with those of their political opponents.
So it was with Mr Turnbull’s comments on the TPP. The first question, on the tail of a doorstop on cybersecurity at the Australian Signal Directory, set the tone:
“What value is the TPP to Australia now America is not part of it? And has any modelling been done to see whether it is still viable without them?” Well, no modelling was done on its viability when the US was still part of it, but not to worry, as the Prime Minister did not answer the question in any case.
The best Mr Turnbull could say was that former NZ Prime Minister John Key had told him that Kiwi analysts had determined that most of the benefit of the TPP would still accrue to New Zealand, even if America was not a party to it.
“America is clearly the biggest economy,” said the Prime Minister. “While the TPP would significantly increase our access to the American market, we already have good access through the Australian American Free Trade Agreement.”
He went on to say our it would provide greater access to Japan and Mexico and South America for Australian exports, especially agricultural ones.
“What it also does, and this is virtue of a multilateral agreement, is it provides a commitment to maintaining common standards to remove barriers to trade from behind the border through all of those economies in the TPP.
“It is a very much trade enhancing agreement, it will enable those economies to engage and to integrate more. It will be better for Australian investment abroad, it will be better for Australian exports, particularly of services as opposed to physical goods.”
That may or may not be the case. The TPP was widely criticised while it was being negotiated, for many reasons. It was seen as favouring US interests at the expense of other countries (tell that to President Trump), its terms were determined in the utmost secrecy (unless you were a US corporation), and the even the government’s own Productivity Commission said it would offer no advantage to Australia – not that we could tell, with the government’s refusal to let anyone do any sort of cost-benefit analysis.
Then, the nut of Mr Turnbull’s comments. “We are not about to walk away from our commitment to Australian jobs. We’re not like Bill Shorten who will throw in the towel and say he is not going to support trade anymore and try to be some kind of down under protectionist because he thinks that would be popular.
“Jobs depend on markets for what we produce. We are a much bigger trading nation than the US as a percentage of GDP. Many more Australian jobs as a percentage depend on trade than do American jobs.
“Trade is critical. It is important to remain engaged with our counterparts. We are all working to see how we can ensure we maintain this momentum towards open markets and free trade Our jobs and our economic future depend on bigger opportunities and bigger markets for what we produce. That is what we’re about. Aussie jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs.”
Then it gets personal. “It is shameful that Bill Shorten would throw in the towel. What a weakling, A statement in Washington and he gives up. There is no other leader, no other leader in the TPP that is not seeking to ensure we maintain this momentum to free trade.”
The Prime Minister and the Trade Minister have been attacking Bill Shorten along these lines for weeks, while Mr Shorten has said that Labor will not support the TPP because it is a different agreement with US involvement. He has said he supports free trade,
Mr Turnbull and Mr Ciobo were adamant until the 11th hour that the US might still support the TPP.
When that hope proved illusory, they shifted their attack to Labor’s approach to trade generally.
At yesterday’s doorstop, Mr Turnbull gave the game away by defending his government’s decision to prop up the Alcoa aluminium smelter or Portland as an example of the government’s commitment to Australian jobs.
“Like the jobs at Portland – what do they need? Affordable electricity. Bill Shorten’s a threat to that. They need trade. They need markets. Bill Shorten’s a threat to that too. He can go around in as many flouro vests as he likes – he is a walking, talking threat to Australian jobs.”
No mind that the lousy few hundred jobs being saved at Portland come at the expense of higher electrical prices for all Victorians. And that propping up inefficient industries is about as protectionist as you can get.
The relationship between logic and the TPP went out the window years ago, while the thing was still being negotiated. Now, with the US President announcing the TPP dead, this weak government still uses it to box with the shadows created by its own ineptitude.
Mr Shorten held his own doorstop on a visit to sunny Rockhampton, just a few hours after Mr Turnbull’s comments, and just long enough for him to have heard them and to react to them.
“Mr Turnbull should now leave the la la land which he’s lived in ever since Donald Trump got elected. Mr Turnbull has pinned all his hopes on a trade treaty, including the US, which Donald Trump said he would never sign.
“So now Mr Turnbull is lashing out and blaming Labor. It’s not Labor who killed the Trans Pacific Partnership, it was Donald Trump. And Mr Turnbull should have the courage, if he wants to criticise me, to criticise President Trump, for doing something which Mr Turnbull’s blaming me for.
There it is, in their own words.