CONTROVERSIAL Queensland Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce last week attempted to turn the legal profession into a bargaining chip in his battle against free trade agreements.
Citing the potential availability of an avalanche of cheap Indian legal advice, the National Party senator said Australian lawyers could soon be on the employment scrap heap. While the Senator admits that his idea is fanciful, he sought to take a debate that is carried on about trade and farm produce, and couch it in terms that will mean something to the more influential legal and accounting professions.
“In light of the push to unencumbered free trade throughout the world, it has been noted that there are great financial advantages for Australian business in outsourcing legal and accountancy work,” Joyce said.
“This year India will have approximately 175,000 law graduates and there is the potential that a large cell of these could be trained specifically in the statutes of Australian law. This could bring a vast reduction in the cost of legal services by up to 70 or 80 per cent.”
It was an effort to attract the attention of people who “feel disassociated from it and therefore maybe a little bit ambivalent about it”, Joyce said in an exclusive interview with Lawyers Weekly. An accountant himself, Joyce wanted the professions to see the situation as he saw it, through their own eyes.
In a global market Australian consumers should be able to source the products and services that are most competitive, his argument began. “Free flow of information via the Internet and video streaming should reduce former barriers that existed to this international service trade taking place. The new world is: if it can be done on a computer it can be done somewhere else,” he said.
But the argument was only used as an “abhorrent” one. He suggested that those who supported free trade would accept that “this may involve the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in both these field, but our country will have placed this workforce in more internationally competitive fields”.
Australia must ask itself a question, he argued. “If this is not ok, if the above proposal in your mind is lunacy, how then is it fair for our rural operators?” he asked.
There are probably more accountants and solicitors in the world than there are farmers, he told Lawyers Weekly. He said that Australia would in the future probably be trading in services, “free trade in services”.
“If you believe in unencumbered free trade, you must have it in services, why wouldn’t you? Now obviously the reason you wouldn’t is because you want to protect your standard of living in Australia. If you think that it’s just to protect the standard of living in Australia in those fields then surely the argument stands that it’s just to protect it in other forms of income earning capacity as well,” he said.
If Australia did allow an outsourcing of legal and accountancy work, he said, “you’d have the displacement of possibly tens of thousands of people. It would be an absolute disaster”.
“The cost savings over their income earning potential, their income earning bodies, would put my own business out of business. Because we can’t say ‘our industry is [sacred], because we are holier than thou, but [we] are allowed to arbitrarily go around touch everyone else’s income earning potential’. If the argument stands that you should have free flow of goods unencumbered across borders because it gives you a good price of goods in your grocery shop or your supermarkets, what’s the difference saying you should have free flow of services across borders so I can get the best possible overheads for my business? And the answer is both, because I want the capacity to earn an income in Australia,” he said.