The public’s mixed views on free trade

The latest Lowy Institute poll on Australia and the world shows some now familiar patterns of belief on free trade. As I argued in Policy some years ago, while the Australian public remains protectionist, this does not mean they fail completely to understand the arguments for free trade.

For example, 72% of respondents to Lowy’s poll agreed that freer trade ‘leads to lower prices and more product choices for consumers’. 67% agreed that freer trade ‘helps to increase prosperity, both in Australia and other parts of the world’. 84% agree that it ‘enables Australian business to open new markets for Australian products’. On all these propositions, public and expert opinion is close. There is even majority support for the social and political benefits of free trade, with 64% agreeing that it ‘makes the world more stable by putting people from different countries in contact with each other’.

Yet when it comes to a specific question on a free trade agreement with China, only 38% say that on balance such an agreement would be good. Why? The answers to some of the other questions on free trade give us some clues. 68% of Lowy’s respondents believe that freer trade ‘puts Australia at a disadvantage because of our high labour and environmental standards’. 50% agree that freer trade ‘costs more Australian jobs than it creates’ and that it ‘leads to more economic and social inequality’. 42% think that freer trade ‘leads to lower quality jobs in Australia’.

People are more in favour (47%) of a free trade agreement with Japan than China. I think this parallels initial reasonably strong support for a US-Australia FTA – that Japan, like the US, is not seen a low-cost manufacturing competitor (these days ‘Made in Japan’ is a mark of quality; it used to mean what ‘Made in China’ means today, ie cheap). Support for FTAs, though short of majorities, is always well above questions that assume unilateral tariff cuts – the idea that Australia is getting something in return helps increase public support – which is probably why the largest favourable response in the Lowy survey is on opening markets for Australian business.

Many economists think that even unilateral tariff cuts are better than maintaining protection. But to carry public opinon, reducing protection through international agreements is the way to go.