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A former Australian prime minister and a senior Bush administration trade official on Tuesday pressed their cases for open-trade policies at a time of sudden global food shortages and criticism that free trade has led to job losses in the United States.

"I think the world cries aloud in 2008 for a reaffirmation of the view that protection is something of the past," said John Howard, who led Australia for over a decade until he was turned out of office by voters in November.

"Because if the world goes back into protection we will aggravate some of the difficulties that are now being faced and I think that will present very significant challenges and very significant difficulties for all of us," Howard said.

Howard, a staunch defender of global trade and one of President Bush's most steadfast allies in Asia was the keynote speaker at the Zions Bank International Trade and Business Conference in Salt Lake City on Tuesday.

The conference held at the Marriott Downtown hotel was attended by hundreds of business people from across Utah. It came at a time when Intermountain West companies are experiencing vigorous export growth, fueled in part by the weak U.S. dollar. Last year, Utah exported goods and services worth almost $8 billion - a 65 percent increase over 2004, according to state figures.

Nationally, exports account for nearly 13 percent of the country's gross domestic product, topping $1.3 trillion in the first quarter of this year, and up from 4.4 percent a half-century ago, said Christopher Padilla, U.S. undersecretary of commerce for international trade.

"Openness is vital and must be defended," said Padilla, who contended liberal trade policies are cushioning the U.S. economy from deeper economic woes. "Today, some American politicians advocate economic isolationism as a panacea for economic uncertainty. This is wrong. Protectionism is dangerous and it doesn't protect."

Trade policy has surfaced during the presidential primary campaigns of Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.

Obama has promised to amend the North American Free Trade Agreement to help American workers and would pressure the World Trade Organization to enforce trade agreements and stop countries from continuing unfair government subsidies.

Clinton has said she would overhaul NAFTA and would take a breather from new trade agreements until her administration has formulated new trade policies.

Only McCain has pledged to push for more open trade. He has called for an end to ethanol subsidies, tariff barriers and quotas that drive up the cost of imports.

Howard spoke repeatedly about his faith in global trade as a vehicle for lifting undeveloped countries from poverty. He said the rapid rise of food prices during the last year is causing enormous social and political consequences in poor countries worldwide that call into question the basis for subsidies and tariffs.

"This is really a time for scaling down rather than scaling up or maintaining agricultural subsidies," Howard said.

"If you have a relatively heavy demand for a commodity, it doesn't make sense to maintain subsidies that were designed to protect producers at a time when people didn't want to buy their product," he said.

Howard called for developed countries to engage China and not fear its rising economic clout. With a population of 1.3 billion, it is helping to lead a profound adjustment of buying power from North America and Europe that by 2030 will have produced a middle class in Asia that numbers in the hundreds of millions.

"The center of gravity of the world's middle class is shifting from the Atlantic to Asia. This is, in a way, one of the most significant developments since the industrial revolution," Howard said.