Few people have had access to the draft Trans Pacific Partnership agreement and the public has been completely shut out. It's unacceptable that large corporations have been able to see portions of the text, and lobby to effect changes, while the public at large and people within government get no say. If it was not for a few leaked documents we would not know what is going on. We do know that the process is driven by the US government, which is representing the interests of its multinational companies.
Trade Minister Andrew Robb, Australia's chief negotiator, has said that securing an increase in Australia's sugar exports is a deal breaker. But there are reports that he is going soft on clauses affecting the cost of cancer medicines and the introduction of criminal penalties for certain copyright infringements. The prospect of increased medicine costs will put lifesaving treatments out of the reach of many.
Currently, companies can patent their drugs for five years, as a form of compensation for time invested in research. We are hearing that the US is demanding eight or 12 years, meaning a much longer wait for the price of drugs to drop. Pharmaceutical companies are some of the richest multinationals in the world, making billions in profit annually. This is where we see how the US government goes in hard for its corporations, pushing for the longer period when companies can profit from their drugs.
The Australian government could go along with the push from the US and Japan for the introduction of criminal penalties for non-commercial copyright breaches. A young person downloading music could end up in the criminal justice system. Whistleblowers, journalists and activists could come under suspicion and possibly be arrested if they reveal details about the contents of the TPP deal — a deal which seems to be about more than trade. It is affecting the workings of our democracy.
Probably the most controversial aspect is the provision that would allow foreign investors to sue any level of government if their profits are reduced by an Australian law or policy. The Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) risks our labour, public health and environmental standards. ISDS clauses are already included in many operating trade agreements, and governments have been sued by corporations. In Canada the provisional Quebec government is being sued by the US Lone Pine energy company, which was required to suspend its gas fracking operations to conduct an environmental study.
Our federal government is also being sued under an ISDS provision by Philip Morris, over the loss of profits arising from the cigarette plain packaging legislation. If this tobacco giant wins it will cost the Australian public millions of dollars in compensation. Local councils adopting a ban on plastic bags or plastic water bottles, as some Australian local councils have already done, could also be sued.
Community opposition to the TPP and ISDS continues to grow as more people become aware of the dangers and see how they play out in real life. The Howard government did not agree to include ISDS in the 2004 US-Australia free trade agreement and a 2010 Productivity Commission report found no economic benefits from ISDS, and recommended against it.
Australia's High Court Chief Justice French has expressed his concerns about the impact of ISDS on domestic court systems in a paper entitled 'ISDS: A Cut above the Law?' The paper notes that governments have not consulted with the judiciary about ISDS. Hundreds of academic experts have argued that the proposed "safeguards" for health and environmental legislation proposed in a trade agreement between the EU and the US are inadequate. But these safeguards are far more extensive than those in the Korea-Australia free trade agreement.
Only the Greens are standing against ISDS and the dangers in the TPP. The previous Labor government began negotiating the TPP in secret and the current government has continued the negotiation. While in government Labor refused to sign the Korea-Australia Free Trade Agreement (KAFTA) because it included ISDS clauses. Recently however, Labor supported KAFTA, which includes ISDS and it is likely they'll support ISDS and the TPP when it comes before parliament.
If Labor and the cross-bench join the Greens and block this deal in the Senate then there will be enough support for Parliament to stop the TPP. Now the major hurdles in the US Congress have been cleared the trans-national negotiations will quickly come to their final conclusion. “Opposition” leader Bill Shorten has already told Labor caucus that he wouldn't block the anti-worker China FTA. The question remains, will the Labor leadership help block the anti-democratic Trans Pacific Partnership?
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