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The Trans-Pacific Partnership and Australia’s right to know

In the history of trade agreement negotiations, most have been undertaken in secret, justified on the grounds that the governments’ negotiating positions would be weakened if they became public. But this…

Concern over the transparency of TPP negotiations grew after it was revealed negotiating documents could not be released until four years after the completion of the negotiations. Azhar Rahim/AAP

In the history of trade agreement negotiations, most have been undertaken in secret, justified on the grounds that the governments’ negotiating positions would be weakened if they became public.

But this justification is losing credibility as trade agreements increasingly deal with regulatory issues normally determined through public democratic and parliamentary processes.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations involve the US, Australia and ten other Pacific Rim governments - six of which have bilateral trade agreements with the US. There have been 19 rounds of negotiations held over three years in different countries, and there is now pressure to finish by the end of 2013.

The US is driving the agenda, and its objectives are not entirely about trade in goods, but to establish US-style regional regulatory frameworks which meet the demands of its major export industries. These include pharmaceuticals, media, information technology, agribusiness and financial services, all of which are demanding changes to other governments’ domestic regulation. This “architecture for a 21st century trade agreement” is clearly designed to meet US economic and strategic interests, but not those of other countries.

Behind closed doors

The TPP negotiations are dealing behind closed doors with policies which would normally be decided by domestic public and parliamentary debate. Pressure from civil society and perceptions of their own national interest have led other governments to resist key US proposals, as shown in the most recent leaked version of the Intellectual Property Chapter.

The agenda includes stronger patents and higher prices for medicines, and reduced rights for governments to regulate medicine prices, food labelling and local content in media. It would also give foreign investors the right to sue governments over health and environmental policies through Investor-state Dispute Settlements.

However community opposition is also based on the lack of transparency within the TPP negotiations.

In Australia, trade agreement texts are only released for public and parliamentary discussion after signed by the Cabinet. There is a review by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, but the text cannot be changed. Parliament only debates the legislation required for the implementation of the agreement. Many aspects of the text which would limit the regulatory space for current and future governments, for example ISDS, do not require legislation.

Transparency precedent

Over the last decade the growing opposition to secrecy in trade negotiations has resulted in some examples of greater transparency.

Since 2003, World Trade Organisation proposed texts, offers and background papers have been placed on the WTO public website. In the case of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which dealt with the extension of intellectual property rights, there was so much controversy that governments agreed to release the text in 2011 before it was signed. So there are precedents for both the release of negotiating documents and the release of final text before it has been signed by governments.

In the case of the TPP, the controversy over secrecy was fuelled by a leaked 2011 version of the intellectual property chapter which revealed on the front page that the negotiating documents could not be released until four years after the completion of the negotiations.

The TPP process has included some consultation - an improvement on previous bilateral negotiations - but it is severely limited by a lack of access to the text. Civil society groups were able to attend and make very short presentations to negotiators during most TPP negotiating rounds, but this practice has now ceased in the final stages. In Australia, negotiators have briefed civil society organisations twice a year, and have also been available for separate meetings on particular topics. But they cannot reveal the detail of what is in the text. Most detailed information has come from leaked documents, industry media and specialised trade media reports.

In the US, trade advisory committees permit 600 corporate advisers and a very small number of other non-government organisations to have more access to the detail of the text, but they are sworn to secrecy. US Congress members have complained about their lack of access to the text as a reason for opposing the fast-tracking of the TPP through the Congress.

The previous ALP government opposed ISDS and the extension of medicine patents and claimed these policies would not be negotiated away. The Coalition policy is to negotiate on ISDS and other issues, trading democracy and sovereignty for promised increases in market access.

The minimum requirement for a sovereign, democratic public policy process is for the text of the TPP and other trade agreements to be released for public and parliamentary discussion before they are signed.


This is the third piece in our series on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Read the other pieces:

When trade agreements threaten sovereignty: Australia beware

Multilateral, regional, bilateral: which agreement is best

Trade pact would make internet services more expensive

IP trade negotiations a prescription for harm

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17 Comments sorted by

  1. Jeremy Tager

    Extispicist

    Even transparency won't rescue the TPPA from being what it is - a corporate power grab occurring with the assistance of governments. For instance, the Investor State Dispute Settlement provisions allow corporations to sue governments OUTSIDE THE COURT SYSTEM if a regulation or rule harms their investments, including public good rules. This is why the tobacco industry, after losing in the high court, is suing Australia for its plain packaging laws based on a similar provision in a 1993 agreement with…

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  2. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Appreciate the article.
    "The minimum requirement for a sovereign, democratic public policy process is for the text of the TPP and other trade agreements to be released for public and parliamentary discussion before they are signed." This summary covers the issue here and now concisely.
    Unless public consultation and debate happens we will not just mimic US policy but live it, becoming a pseudo US state. Few are under any illusion and understand the US is run by transnational corporations. Our question is are we willing to submit to the level of apathy plaguing the US communities?
    Even the UNs attempt at reigning in transnational corporations with the Global Compact is now just blue washing their use of power and influence.
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    http://www.unglobalcompact.org/

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  3. David Leigh

    logged in via Facebook

    It had to happen! Australia is about to become just another united state. Under Abbott, we trade away the limited local content left in our media, in favour of more US programs and fill our shopping centres with even more US stores and goods. I think the so called level playing field is about to super tilt to favour the US. Why are trade agreements, which affect all Australians, allowed to be negotiated behind closed doors? Where drugs are concerned and any other product for that matter, sourced from the USA, we pay far more than US customers pay because Australia is perceived to be a rich country. Are we about to get fleeced even more?

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  4. greg fullmoon

    being and doing

    Cheers for this Patricia. You've nailed it. It is no doubt a case of collusion against the public interest by transnational capitalist corporations and their servants in government.

    Could it be a refined form of global fascism?

    The ingredients are there; corporate and government however in the case of the Nazis and Fascist Italy, however the party whose purpose is served is no longer defined by geography.

    Another article in 'The Conversation' here covers similar ground about the TPP…

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  5. Mark Shaw

    Health Media

    Whenever there are profits to be made the people come last. Whenever there are huge profits to be made the people are removed from the process all together. Sometimes with a gun.

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  6. John Pickard

    Eclectic naturalist

    Secrecy in cases like this ALWAYS means that someone (Australia) is getting screwed.

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  7. Reg Nansen

    Retiree

    Thanks again to The Conversation for this series on the TPPA and to Pat for this article. One comment that stands out to me as an affront to the very principles of democratic representative governance is:

    "In Australia, trade agreement texts are only released for public and parliamentary discussion after signed by the Cabinet."

    Can someone comment on how this practice fits (or not) with the Australian Constitution? IMHO it is the antithesis of democracy in action.

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  8. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Thanks Pat. The TPP is a pivotal stage of a long running process, a plotted and planed for point on a trajectory of consolidated and organised global capital that secretive governments/captured and occupied legislatures are complicit in to varying degrees. Murdoch's newly minted Abbott government is gung ho/ full speed ahead in prosecuting its project. The fuel running the engine is neoliberalism and until this destructive economic ideology is defeated global populations and the natural environment…

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  9. robert roeder
    robert roeder is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    This issue has ramification which will lock Australia into a confining and constricting space.
    We all know that the US grew it's economy through manufacturing. After WW2 Japan did the same. Now we see china and Korea. The manufacturing base has largely shifted from the west to the east.
    Yesterday I commented on an item here about the decline in retail sales and the shift to online sales. The assumption was that retail/wholesale is now facing a similar fate to manufacturing.
    China has rapidly…

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  10. Michael Wahren

    Self employed

    One of the big problems has been the lack of media attention on this topic. As soon as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment was defeated, the TPP discussions commenced. The same basket of ideas to entrench corporate control but this time the secrecy was extreme. Where has the media been hiding? Why is that only activist sites or leftwing/progressive internet media has kept us informed?
    With an Abbott led government our ability to defeat the TPP will very much rely on US activism, so that…

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  11. Roma Guerin

    Pensioner

    I am just relieved that there are now intelligent educated people getting a handle on the TPP. I have been following OpenMediaInternational on Facebook for about three years and wondering why on earth nobody was even mentioning it in Australia. Forget the MSM, it will all be too deep for them, so Joe Public is being rolled as we speak. Tell me, do academics do protest marches? I would gladly drive 145km to Melbourne if I thought there were march leaders with brains. Even bring my own poster.

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  12. Eddy Schmid

    Retired

    FINALY, a tiny glimmer of hope that Australians are awakening from their slumber and realizing the threat that's staring them in the face.
    Abbott and Co, will willingly surrender Australians autonomy without a whimper, as ALL Canberra are under the U.S. Imperial boot.
    It's up to ALL Australians, to get off their preverbial back sides and confront their local member, demanding this issue be taken up in Canberra and soundly REJECTED.
    To do anything else would be treasonous and Un- Australian.

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  13. Jemma Williams

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    In response to Roma and anyone wondering if there is a campaign in Australia -
    The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) has been running a campaign on this for a while. The website has a lot of information about the agreement, a collection of latest news items, resources and fact sheets for download and a template letter to the trade minister which you can sign.
    www.aftinet.org.au

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