The case for business leadership in a world divided

A strong call for a rules–based multi-lateral system of trade was made by the Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), Mr John W.H. Denton, AO, when he addressed ABIE members and guests on 19 November in the impressive Place Vendome chambers of host, international law firm White & Case.

In a far-reaching talk that touched on economic integration, climate change and world trade, Mr Denton pointed to the gathering storm clouds of volatility, ambiguity, mistrust and instability: “Rules are being challenged and undermined. Tariffs are being raised to the level we have not seen since the 1930s.”

“It is our international institutions and rules themselves that are now being questioned and even actively undermined to an unprecedented extent.”

The intersection of trade and politics

While stressing the importance of the intersection of trade and politics, he pointed to an eroding of public trust: “A recent poll showed that 85 per cent of people do not believe the system is working for them. Even in Australia, with 27 straight years of economic growth, there is a feeling that the system is rigged.  Yet 80 per cent of job loss is due to mechanisation.”

Speaking on global economic integration, Mr Denton underlined the lack of preparation for the impact of new technologies that are changing the nature of the economic environment: “Change is difficult, especially at the pace and scale we have seen in recent decades. It requires investment in re-skilling and redeployment programmes – the kind that have rarely been properly conceived and resourced, certainly not at the level needed.”

“To take the example of global trade, the multilateral system has repeatedly missed opportunities to sufficiently adapt to emerging economic and technological trends.”

The imperative for a multilateral trading system

Referring to climate change, world trade reform and global poverty, Mr Denton argued that business should move beyond merely voicing concern over rising protectionism. While there is an imperative for business to stand behind the multilateral trading system, companies should focus on helping governments chart a new course for trade policymaking that deals meaningfully with the pressures now building in the global economy. One of the key challenges will be how to build consensus for open economies.

“We have approached a point at which business cannot afford to sit on the sidelines of these global challenges.”

Drawing a parallel with the founders of the ICC, who founded the organisation in the 1920s, Mr Denton highlighted the pivotal role for business in overcoming these challenges: “ICC’s founders were referred to as the ‘Merchants of Peace’ for having recognised the critical link between trade, economic growth and peace between nations.”

John Denton is the first Australian to hold the position of Secretary General of the ICC.

“The ICC was born from the ashes of World War I, a part of the pact made around the League of Nations.  I’m very proud to be able to lead this organisation into its 100th year.”

John Denton, the first Australian Secretary General of the ICC

Earlier in the evening, Angus Mackenzie, Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian Embassy Paris and Australian Ambassador to UNESCO, highlighted the many achievements of this global business leader in international policy, trade and investment:

A former diplomat and Partner and Chief Executive Officer of Corrs Chambers Westgarth; Board member of IFM Global investors – one of the world’s major infrastructure investors; Board member of the United Nations Global Compact; Founding member of the B20, the Australia – China CEO Roundtable and Chair of UNHCR in Australia; Co-leader of the Australian Government’s White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century and previously Chair of the APEC Finance and Economics Work Group; Out-going Chair of the Global Engagement Taskforce of the Business Council of Australia; and one of the founders of Human Rights Watch (Australia) and Teach for Australia. Mr Denton was appointed as an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2015 for his services to the business community, the arts and the rights of refugees.

Bernard Tabary, President of ABIE and CEO International of Keolis, concluded: “Australia should be proud to have one of its prominent citizens lead such a prestigious and influential organisation.”