Free trade

AICD Chairman Elizabeth Proust AO FAICD called on senior business and political leaders to rebuild trust in institutions among the wider community at the Asia-Pacific Regional Conference, a multilateral meeting of Australian, German and Asia-Pacific business and government officials held in Perth earlier this month.

"We need to recognise the importance of building trust and building confidence for our employees, for our shareholders, for other stakeholders," Proust said. "We need to listen to their real concerns and respond to those stakeholders in a way that builds and strengthens trust."

Proust was speaking on a panel discussing the future of global trade agreements that also included former Federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb AO, Shadow Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board Chairman Thomas Lembong and Business Council of Australia President Grant King.

Moderator David Speers set the scene for the panel by referring to the rising tide of populism, quoting Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's opening keynote for the conference: "The siren songs of populists, advocating protectionism as simple quick solutions, have gained considerable support."

In that context leaders must have a conversation with the public, Proust said. "As business and community leaders, our role in this is to have a conversation around growth, the importance of growth, why these free trade agreements are important, the issue of fairness and of inequality, which is real in all of our communities."

It was a theme picked up by Senator Wong: "We have to engage with the reasons why so many of our populations across the world are disagreeing with the policy prescriptions we're putting forward."

Lembong warned of the dangers of talking in statistics and aggregate numbers when it comes to persuading populations on the benefits of free trade.

"We're losing the people," Lembong lamented. "We have to change the way we talk. We have to talk like grownup people to win back the trust that we've lost."

The solution, according to Lembong, is to beat the populists at their own game:

“As technocrats, bureaucrats and policymakers, we need to tell better stories. We shouldn’t keep talking like this: it’s going to be this million jobs, income levels are up by x per cent and so on. We have to give real concrete examples. Especially in this digital age, in the age of social media, in the age of the sixty second viral video, heart-touching videos that bring tears to your eyes, make you laugh. We live in this era now.”

Business must play its role in communicating the real and tangible benefits of trade, which it hasn’t previously done, preferring just to ‘get on with the job’, King said. “Increasing access [to markets] for [Australian] agriculture and particularly [services] can be of great benefit to the community,” King told the conference delegates.

Not enough businesspeople so far have taken up the mantle on this challenge, according to Proust.

“With some notable exceptions, at least in [Australia] too few businesspeople step outside their businesses and their daily sphere and engage in wider discussion, whether it’s on policy issues, whether it’s on government… there is a role for businesspeople, and not just CEOs, engaging in a wider discussion with the community, talking about trade, talking about growth, talking about investment and beyond their own sphere,” Proust said.


Look out for more coverage of the Asia-Pacific Regional Conference coming soon to the AICD website, including global experts discussing the future of work and how businesses can take advantage of Industry 4.0.

AICD Chairman Elizabeth Proust AO FAICD will be speaking with ANZ Non-Executive Director Jane Halton AO PSM GAICD and Richmond Football Club President Peggy O'Neal FAICD at the National Press Club on 6 December. AICD members can book at the corporate member rate by entering membership number 777 when booking.