The Canberra Times | 3 November 2023
Unions call for laws to ensure trade pact transparency
By Dominic Giannini, Australian Associated Press
Unions are pushing for new laws to ensure workers’ rights and Australian jobs are considered when negotiating trade agreements.
How Australia negotiates and enters into trade agreements with other nations is being scrutinised by a parliamentary committee.
Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil criticised the current system, saying government processes were secretive and unions were not properly consulted.
It was a "great irony" unions were left to rely on public documents from other governments to find out the impact a trade pact would have on Australian jobs, as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was not forthcoming with information, she said.
This was the case for recent negotiations for a pact with the European Union, she said.
"Negotiations are currently conducted behind closed doors and Australia lags behind other like-minded countries when it comes to transparency and public scrutiny of agreements," Ms O’Neil told an inquiry hearing on Friday.
Unions needed to be privy to confidential briefings and be able to see the proposed treaty’s text so they could adequately provide input, as opposed to receiving vague updates, she said.
"It’s too late when we find out," Ms O’Neil told the committee, adding the only recourse after an agreement was signed was for the parliament to accept or refuse to ratify the entire treaty rather than edit specific provisions.
"The moment is lost," the ACTU president said.
Businesses were also over-represented in consultations, Ms O’Neil said, pointing to the UK free trade agreement negotiations where more than 140 organisations were consulted before negotiations commenced but not one union.
Separate stakeholder groups that included First Nations people, women and unionists were needed to ensure all parts of the Australian community were represented and their concerns heard, she said.
Ms O’Neil said laws were needed to hold the government accountable.
"A legislated approach will ensure clarity and democratic oversight of Australia’s approach to trade, giving DFAT negotiators the ability to determine strategy but within a clear, democratically accountable set of parameters in the public interest."
It would also send a clear signal about Australian values and priorities to trading partners, Ms O’Neil said.