SYDNEY — Sturdy Mike Moore, the new director general of the World Trade Organization, knows how to appreciate the privileges of office that became his due last week when he took on the powerful role of world’s free-trade czar. After the bruising battle he fought to get the job, he deserves them. The Swiss ambassador who mediated the succession to the previous WTO boss Renato Ruggiero described the negotiations as “the most difficult and ugly task of my career.” Normally suave Geneva-based diplomats traded aggression and personal insults during heated debates, according to insiders.
For 10 weeks the New Zealander, who for a short period headed the Wellington government and lately was the Labor Party spokesman on foreign affairs, based himself in a small Geneva pension to lobby WTO delegates. He lived there at his own expense and even told the New Zealand press that he washed his socks in the evenings in order to save money.
This frugal picture stands in contrast to the opulence of his rival, Supachai Panitchpakdi, who comes from a wealthy Thai family. The deputy prime minister goaded the Thai press into bitter criticism of Moore to the extent that allegations of racism crowded an already bitter affair. Moore, heavily backed by the United States, was seen as the First World’s candidate while Supachai was painted as the developing world’s hero.
But personal lobbying or smear campaigns could not take Moore or Supachai over the winning line. Neither candidate could get the necessary margin of support in Geneva to take the post. And while the 134 ambassadors accredited to the WTO labored in vain for a diplomatic solution, an Australian lobbyist came to the aid of the New Zealander. The compromise suggestion that saw the establishment of a rotating director generalship — proposed by the Bangladeshi ambassador — originated in Sydney. The fudge, modeled on the split chairmanship of the European Central Bank, saw the WTO post divided into two terms.
The story behind the strategy is a textbook example of political lobbying and demonstrates the influence that “political consultants” now have on the political process. The idea of job rotation was first suggested by the Australian PR consultant David Mitchell, chairman of Sydney-based consultancy Asia Pacific Partners. Mitchell brought his idea to Moore and then offered politicians in Canberra the role of honest brokers in the long-drawn-out affair. Mitchell had the advantage of knowing his way around Geneva, where he was based for eight years as Public Affairs Director of the World Wildlife Fund. Then, his panda campaigns helped increase public and corporate contributions to the WWF twenty-fold. He afterward worked as a strategist for then opposition leader John Howard.
In June this year, with the WTO succession race deadlocked, Mitchell appealed to Asia-Pacific solidarity — usually a nebulous concept — to fix the problem. “The danger exists that Mike (Moore) and the Thai will both be swept away and the chairman of the selection committee will encourage new candidates,” Mitchell wrote to highly placed contacts.
Behind the scenes in London, Sir Leon Brittan, EU Commissioner for Asia and China, had expressed interest in the job. “It would be fatal and a terrible loss for Australia, New Zealand and the whole region, should a new candidate, that does not come from the Asia-Pacific region, prevail,” Mitchell wrote in his strategy paper.
His paper served as a wakeup call in Canberra. Tim Fischer, deputy prime minister until the end of June and an internationally renowned “Mr. Fix-it,” was won over to Mitchell’s proposal. The Australian initiative to resolve the crisis was launched during the APEC trade minister’s conference at the end of June in Auckland and was finally accepted in Geneva in mid-July.
With this political chess move, Canberra won a victory on several fronts. First, candidates from the Asia-Pacific region hold the top WTO job for the next four years. Second, Canberra has won new friends in Bangkok and the rest of Asia as well as a reputation as a mediator. Finally, their irate cousins in New Zealand were pacified.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.