Rita, the game is over ... but enjoy the skiing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 January, 2011, 12:00am

SCED to attend informal ministerial meeting in Davos to review progress of WTO negotiations

Government press release headline
January 27

SCED stands for Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development. Her name is Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan and her job is to boost tourism so that rich hotelkeepers may grow even richer. It is also to waste public funds on daft government ideas in technology.

And she doesn't need to go to Davos to review progress in the negotiations of the World Trade Organisation. There has been no progress.

But the World Economic Forum, a big annual talk shop, is on in Davos at the moment. Politicians from around the globe vie for good time slots on the podium there in order to express correct sentiments beginning with the words 'we must'. The skiing is good, too. We can excuse Rita this temptation.

Thus let us review the WTO for her so that she can hit the slopes sooner.

It was established in 1995 as an outgrowth of something called the GATT, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The WTO was the second attempt to formalise the GATT. The first attempt, the International Trade Organisation, failed when the United States refused to sign up.

Diplomats decided to have a second go after a successful set of GATT trade talks, the Uruguay Round, ended in 1994. This Uruguay Round was in truth far from as successful as it was billed at the time. It resolved none of the big questions of obstacles to trade. Rather it featured diplomats expanding their remit to authority over trade in services and intellectual property as well as trade in goods.

This was important to their self-importance and therefore the Uruguay Round was deemed successful. To seal this success they set up the WTO.

And immediately ran into trouble with a nasty internal spat about who would get the plum Geneva job of secretary general or general secretary or whatever it was, the Big Wazzoo in other words.

Neither of the two top candidates would give way and, after much publicised squabbling, they split the job. Some things are important to the people in the WTO, you see, and some things are not.

What the rest of the world thought important was resolution of the trade war in agricultural commodities. Would the European Union give up its heavy farm subsidies and its attempts to drown the world in its milk lake? Would the United States give up its similar attempts to suffocate the world in its mountains of grain and corn?

This was the question for the much touted Doha Round of talks, which followed the formation of the WTO, and the answer was soon apparent. No, they would not. Farmers voted. Liberalisation of trade in agricultural goods was a non-starter.

It immediately made the WTO a non-starter, too. Diplomats like to deny it with regular attempts to raise this Doha Lazarus, such as the ministerial conference we hosted in 2005. Let us be grateful that we didn't share Doha's fate of having our name stuck to it. Picture those world headlines - 'Hong Kong dead'.

The WTO was briefly made to appear a live thing with China's accession to it in 2001 but a proper silence has now returned it to the grave. It is now no more than a pleasant pre-retirement posting for diplomats who have faithfully reproduced their masters' voices. Geneva has some excellent restaurants and then there's that skiing. You may even see Brangelina there or Posh and Becks.

Bilateral trade talks have taken the WTO's place. They work better than having diplomats bash their heads against the wall of agreements that only become effective if everyone signs them. Deals signed between only two countries at a time can cover many things and slowly ease trade frictions.

At least that's the theory. They still can't touch agriculture and the diplomats only really work themselves up over tax and money laundering, as these involve the security of their own incomes. Nonetheless, this does more than pretending that the dead are alive.

But we have not come that far yet in Hong Kong. The press release I quoted above still talks of discussing 'the state of play of the Doha Round negotiations, with the aim of providing political impetus to bring the round to a successful and balanced conclusion'.

Give it up, Rita. The state of play is that the game is over, the score was a tie, the players have left the field, the fans have left the bleachers and even the cleaners are finishing up now.

If you want to do something useful in this line then get us a full line of double taxation treaties with the rest of the world. Davos is not where you do this.

But we wish you a good time on the slopes.