Tim Harcourt

Imagine a country that is inward looking and rarely notices the world beyond its own borders. It’s a country that has double-digit inflation and unemployment and a poor record of industrial disputation.  Industry shelters behind prohibitive tariff walls, the exchange is fixed and ‘overseas’ trade is an afterthought. There are few tourists and not many foreign students on university campuses and few ‘foreign’ restaurants. The country despite its bountiful wealth is at the bottom of the global premiership table in terms of economic performance.

You don’t have to imagine too hard because that country Australia – the Australia of the past. It’s the Australia that farmer Stan Kelly and his son and fellow free trader Bert Kelly (also known as ‘the Modest Member’) railed against because of what the old Australia was doing to farmers, exporters, workers and the whole Australian community.

But whilst Kelly and son fought hard intellectually for the free trade side of the cause (Bert as a lone voice in the Fraser Government) it took three visionaries of the labour movement to open Australia up and lock in the economic prosperity that the lucky country experiences today. Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Treasurer Paul Keating and ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty lead the reform charge and importantly managed its social and industrial impact. The float of the exchange rate, the reduction of tariffs, the introduction of inflation targeting via the prices and incomes Accord were bold, brave reforms but they were coupled with enhancements to the social wage with the introduction of Medicare, superannuation, tax cuts and reforms to the education and training system to enhance skills for affected workers. They were brave reforms and they were bold. I joined the ACTU at the start of 1991, when the March 1991 tariff cuts were implemented in the middle of a recession and with the Industrial Relations Commission still grappling with enterprise bargaining. They were bold reforms but they enabled Australia to open up to Asia and take advantage of the shift in global economic power towards the Asia Pacific region. The Tyranny of Distance has truly become the Power of Proximity and those 1991 reforms enabled Australia to be in the right place at the right time. This time the lucky country made its own luck.

As Australia faces its next challenge in terms of climate change and the possibility of another global financial shock, what are the lessons to be learnt about how Australia opened up its economy? And which lessons are important to whom as debates get ravaged in the 24 hour news cycle?


The first lesson, perhaps for the leaders of the modern labour movement is that on the whole, trade has been good for workers as well as exporters. Some research I did with UNSW shows that on average, exporters pay 60 per cent higher wages provide more job security, equal employment opportunity and better occupational health and safety (OH & S) standards than non-exporters. Exporters are more profitable and achieve higher standards of productivity and therefore can train and reward their workers better, on average, than non-exporters.


The second lesson, to those on the other side of the fence, is that it is not economically desirable to protect markets it is desirable to protect workers. An open economy does not mean we have to dispense with all notions of fairness in the labour market. An individual bargaining one on one with management will in most cases not win out. It doesn’t matter if you are a cleaner, a computer programmer or even a chief economist; you need protection when negotiating with management to produce a fair and economically efficient outcome. In fact, the UNSW research also showed that export sectors, that were highly efficient also were unionised with coverage by collective agreements. After all Australia has a unique system of industrial relations institutions and its one that produces an unemployment rate nearly half that of the US and some of our other northern hemisphere counterparts. In short, labour market deregulation is not a logical extension of trade liberalisation.


The third lesson is to avoid fads in trade and industry policy. Eleven years ago as the Australian dollar plummeted below the US50 cents mark, the head of Hewlett Packard visiting Australian for the Sydney Olympics warned that unless Australia got out of ‘old economy’ industries like mining and farming and exported software and became more ‘new economy’ like Taiwan, the Aussie dollar would be 30 cents by 2010. The chief scientist expressed similar views. This was of course before we saw one of the biggest terms of trade increases in our history as ‘old economy’ prices increased due to the surge in demand from Asia. We also developed so-called ‘new economy’ exporters selling training, software and IT services to ‘old economy’ exporters of rocks and crops. Policy makers and the RBA did well to hold their nerve.


The final lesson is that trade policy has moved well beyond tariffs. Whilst the WTO may not be as dead as a Doha yet, and Craig Emerson’s new initiative shows an innovative way to break the dead lock, most Australian exporters are concerned about behind the border issues and seek off-shore government assistance when trying to understand new business networks and cultures particularly in emerging and frontier markets.


Another Kelly, Paul wrote recently, in reference to events at Qantas, that traditional Australian industrial relations are not compatible with us engaging in the ‘Asian century.’ On the contrary, many people of Asian descent have come to Australia to experience the fairness and freedom in the labour market here that is denied to them in their countries of origin. The Australian model allows us to trade with Asia, but to work and live according to Australian traditions of fairness and flexibility. The ‘Kelly gang’ (Stan, Bert and Paul) got it right in terms of free trade, but it took Hawke, Keating and Kelty to make it work by managing the social and economic impacts in the true Australian tradition

Tim Harcourt is the J.W.Nevile Fellow in Economics at the Australian School of Business UNSW and the author of The Airport Economist: www.theairporteconomist.com. A version of this opinion piece first appeared in the Australian Financial Review 10 November 2011.