Barack Obama’s success poses questions for Australia

Barack Obama’s success in defeating the ‘heir apparent’ for the Democratic nomination for the US Presidency brings new excitement to the race to the White House. But Obama’s candidacy also holds important economic implications for Australia, according to Flinders University’s Head of American Studies, Professor Don DeBats.

Describing the outcome of the long-running primary election battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton as “remarkable and historic,” Professor DeBats said both candidates took positions on free trade that did not necessarily align with Australia’s best economic interests.

“Traditionally Australia has wanted someone in the White House who is sympathetic to free trade and, if Barack Obama becomes the President, that won’t be the case,” Professor DeBats told Flinders Journal.

“Obama’s Republican opponent, Senator John McCain, is a free trade advocate and has voted that way in the Senate but Senator Obama has voted consistently against free trade,” he said.

“Australia also has a great interest in bringing down subsidies contained in the US Farm Bill – which dumps billions of dollars into agricultural support and distorts prices and markets to Australia’s disadvantage. McCain has opposed the Farm Bill but Obama has supported it. In this election cycle particularly, the Democrats are the more protectionist party.

“I think a lot of people in Australia are fascinated by Obama and the change he represents and promises, as are a lot of people in the United States. But before we get too carried away it’s important to recognise that there are some very real economic policy complications for Australia should he be elected in November.”

In a recently published book, ‘More than an Ally?’ Contemporary Australia-US Relations, Flinders School of Political and International Studies lecturer, Dr Maryanne Kelton analyses the relationship between the Howard Government and the Clinton and Bush Administrations.

“In its early trade disputes with the US over an Australian leather manufacturer’s increased share of the US automotive market and the imposition of US tariffs on the export of Australian lamb, the Howard Government was unable to leverage its special relationship to exact promised material gain in its trade negotiations,” Dr Kelton writes.

“Although the US signed the free trade agreement with Australia, and though it is too early to determine the financial success of the deal, the negotiations clearly failed to meet the government’s initial expectations for the agreement,” she says.

“These outcomes reflect both the exigencies of power in bilateral negotiations for any small government, in addition to a misplaced belief that a cultural affinity would deliver material gain.”

Ultimately, Dr Kelton concludes “the success of bilateralism as a strategy with the US and the delivery of successful outcomes for Australia rest on a convergence with US domestic interests.”

As the US moves into the next phase of the Presidential race, Professor DeBats said Barack Obama would be formally accepting the nomination at the Democratic Party’s convention in August almost 45 years to the day since Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech set the stage for decades of civil rights activism.

“I think Dr King would have been very proud of this moment,” Professor DeBats said.

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