The Crawford Australian Leadership Forum has discussed barriers to international trade but has disputed concerns about a rise of global protectionism.
In a session on trade and investment, chaired by ANU Professor Warwick McKibbin, business leaders raised concerns about global trade flows and a political shift towards protection.
But former World Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Pascal Lamy said trade volumes were not the best measure of global activity, and countries needed to look more to the value they added to traded goods and services.
He said the rise of protectionism was not reflected in the data.
"There is far too much crying wolf about protectionist measures," said Mr Lamy, who was WTO Director General from 2005 to 2013.
"The numbers tell us trade is OK."
However, Woodside Chief Executive Officer Peter Coleman pointed to moves to restrict Australian gas exports as a new form of protectionism, and different from the usual tariffs and import duties.
"We are seeing more protectionist interventions," Mr Coleman said.
Geoff Culbert, President and Chief Executive of GE Australia, New Zealand and PNG, pointed to the free movement of capital and growing competition and the pressures they placed on policymakers.
"Capital is liquid," he said. "The world gets more competitive every day."
He said Australia used to be a low-cost, low-risk place to invest, but had turned into a place of high costs and high risk.
Alison Watkins, Group Managing Director of Coca-Cola Amatil, pointed to Australia's advantages in agriculture.
She also said Australia, as a small country, always needed to attract capital.