Trade law and history


This interdisciplinary project explores the impact of international trade law on domestic policy, regulatory actors and regulatory institutions in Australia.


Project background and aims

This project is part of an ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration exploring the impact of international trade law in Australia. In this iteration of the collaboration, we focus on the decade immediately following the signing of the GATT in 1947 and the GATT’s effect on understandings of the work of the Australian Tariff Board. The project illuminates the impact of the GATT 1947 within the state. One reason this within state aspect has been overlooked in previous work is because on signing the GATT, Australia did not undertake major legal reforms of its Tariffs or Tariff Board. Similarly, discussions of trade policy of that time –mainly by economists, political economists and diplomatic historians – generally conclude that the GATT had little discernible impact on Australia’s domestic policy and regulation in its early years. Rather, Australia’s use of import restrictions to protect its manufacturing, as permitted under the GATT’s balance of payments exceptions, meant it was ‘business as usual’.

This project challenges the view that Australia’s early engagement with GATT 1947 had little impact. We draw on recent critical explorations of international trade law and histories of international economic governance, which seek to show how institutions, such as the GATT, and the language of ‘trade liberalisation’ and economic expertise are not neutral or objective, but that they are shaped around particular understandings of ‘trade liberalisation’ (Wilkinson 2009). Using the concept of ‘discourse communities’, the GATT is understood as both a legal and ideational framework which shaped the shared ideas and understandings of international and domestic regulatory actors (ministers, trade diplomats, government advisors).

In examining the way that these actors reviewed Australia’s Tariff Board in light of new GATT obligations, the analysis points to how the constitutive ideas of GATT – about trade, economic thinking and what constitutes expert knowledge about trade – were disseminated. Specifically, this project examines how the GATT – as an instrument of international law – and Australia’s trade actors functioned as vehicles for transmitting ideas about ‘trade liberalisation’ and economy into Australia’s domestic context. The analysis traces the devaluation of the knowledge and expertise of the Tariff Board because it did not support the GATT’s central project of ‘trade liberalisation’.


This is an interdisciplinary project drawing on methodological approaches developed in recent critical explorations of international trade law and histories of international economic regimes. The approaches drawn on include, discourse analysis and the concept of ‘discourse communities’ and the use of a focused case study.   The project draws on a range of archival material, primarily held in the National Library Australia and the National Archives.