Free trade’s future, a public affair

November 24, 2016 Alistair Nicholas 0 Comments

Considerable ink is currently being spilled on whether Donald Trump will reverse his position on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement after he assumes the presidency next year. However the opinion writers and talking heads are missing the point. It is not whether the Donald will change his mind or not.

During the election Trump drew his support from a largely an anti-free trade element that has emerged in the US over the past two decades. Much of the US electorate now sees free trade as a threat to jobs and living standards.

Similar anti-free trade movements are picking up momentum across Europe – indeed, it was one of the elements that brought about the Brexit decision in the UK. They may feed into the upcoming elections in France and Germany. Even Australia – which has benefitted considerably from a number of bilateral free trade agreements – is facing a rising anti-free trade sentiment.

That this is happening is a condemnation of governments and the business sector of these countries for their failure to sell the benefits of free trade.

Undoubtedly there have been far more winners than losers as tariffs and other barriers have tumbled and trade and investment expanded. Consumer goods are cheaper and new jobs have been created in knowledge industries as economies have grown in sophistication. And the emergence of large middle classes in many Asian societies have meant more opportunities for our resources, agriculture and tourism sectors. The list of positives for western economies is endless.

But the story has not been told in engaging and compelling ways. Economists have done their best but their science is dismal and their language is dull.

What is lacking is a deliberate, well thought out, strategic approach to communicating the benefits of globalisation and free trade. The story needs to be told to children in classrooms and to their parents through engaging case studies on television and via other media. And the stories need to be shared on social media and by word-of-mouth.

It sounds like a job for a creative public affairs agency.


By Alistair Nicholas, Executive Vice President – Director, Special Projects. (Alistair is a former trade policy advisor to the Federal Coalition and was Trade Commissioner to Washington DC from 1996 to 2000.)