Tuesday, August 18, 2015

By design. Why super system hurts women

Women put away only half as much super as men, and suddenly we're concerned.

The Senate is holding an inquiry. The finance industry is talking stop-gap solutions. The ANZ wants to give its female staff a $500-a-year top-up. Rice Warner wants to pay an extra 2 per cent into their accounts. Westpac is paying their super while they are on maternity leave. Their umbrella body, the Financial Services Council, wants the law changed so that women can top up their accounts later in life, when presumably they've got income to spare. Other solutions are dafter.

The ANZ is offering free financial advice to female customers with less than $50,000 in super. The Association of Superannuation Funds wants women to "take an hour" to check their accounts each International Women's Day. Newspaper columns suggest skipping coffee, getting spouses to pay into super or working for a company that values women.

Oh, and lifting compulsory contributions from 9.5 to 12 per cent. The industry loves that one.

Every one of these suggestions misses the point. Low income earners get less super than high income earners by design. It's the way the system is set up...

Women are usually low income earners. It's a fact. On average women employed full-time get 20 per cent less than men employed full-time. And because so many are employed part-time, their total wages are on average 33 per cent less. And that's when they are working. Because so many have interrupted working lives their life-time incomes are lower still.

It means lower contributions. Our super system gives the most to those who contribute the most, and then accentuates the difference by giving the greatest tax concessions to those who earn the most. It supports most who need it least. And we are meant to be surprised that it isn't aimed at women.

According to Roy Morgan research, typically, an Australian woman holds just $35,200 in super while a man holds $62,900. A retired woman holds $129,100 in super; a retired man has $192,600.

And because women usually live longer than men, the woman's money has to last longer. It's often said that women are able to rely on their men to get them through retirement. It's one of the tips for how to cope. But many retire without partners. Marriages don't last.

As the Human Rights Commission says: "It is inequitable and impractical that a woman's expectations of financial security in retirement should fluctuate according to her relationship status".

And it's dangerous. The commission says depending on male income "makes the significant number of women in violent or abusive relationships financially vulnerable, particularly as they reach retirement age and the possibility of acquiring an independent income diminishes".

If we were going to devise a system that actually supported those who needed it the most, we would devise nothing like the one we have at the moment.

In large part that's because our system wasn't designed; it grew. In presenting the report of his financial system inquiry late last year David Murray pleaded with the government to define a purpose for super. Is it to help middle-income Australians save a little bit more to supplement the pension? Is it to provide a tax break for the investments of high earners? Is it to replace the pension for all but the lowest of earners?

The system began as a short-term fix for a short-term problem. Retirement incomes scarcely entered into it. Ralph Willis, one of Labor's Treasurers in the Hawke/Keating era, remembers that the building unions had just negotiated a massive pay increase outside of the so-called Accord, under which centralised wage rises were handed out. If the increase had spread to workers within the Accord it would have reignited double-digit inflation.

"It was an open invitation to everyone else to breach the Accord," he told ABC radio years after retirement. "The way of resolving it was to turn it into superannuation."

Workers were given super in lieu of wage rises. Because they were unable to spend it until they retired, it didn't stoke inflation. Before long compulsory super accounted for 4 per cent of each wage, and then 9 per cent. Had the Rudd/Gillard Labor government stayed in office it would have climbed to 12 per cent (and there was talk of 15 per cent). All the while without an examination of what it was actually for.

It isn't supporting the retirements of those most in need. They are forced on the pension. It is helping middle-income Australians put away a bit more for retirement, but at the cost of leaving them with less than they could have in the middle of their lives. And it's serving as a tax dodge for high-wealth retirees who pay nothing on the earnings of their funds or on their payouts for the rest of their lives.

The best way to use super to help low income women would be to abolish compulsion, abolish the tax breaks, and let them access their income when they need it. The extra tax revenue could dramatically boost the pension, and better means testing could ensure the very well off still didn't get it.

It would help women because it would replace the system that hurts them rather than merely ameliorate its worst effects. The worst thing we could do would be to boost their compulsory super contributions, as the industry wants. It would further depress their incomes while leaving the differential on retirement in place.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Click to

Abbott's own figures show he could have done much more to fight climate change

The striking thing about Tony Abbott's attempt to balance damage to the environment against damage to the economy in choosing an emissions reduction target is how mind-bogglingly small the damage to the economy would be.

Abbott's cabinet endorsed the target last week. Whereas until now Australia has tried to lower emissions to 5 per cent below 2000 levels by 2020, at the Paris conference in December it will offer about the same as the United States". It is true the US is offering a cut of 26 to 28 per cent, but its cut is to be delivered by 2025, five years earlier than Australia's 2030.

Comparing like for like and assuming the US continued its promised rate of cuts beyond 2025, the US is offering 35 to 39 per cent, compared with Australia's 26 to 28 per cent.

Abbott might have been hoping we wouldn't notice...

On a like-for-like basis, we will offer less than Britain United Kingdom, less than Germany, less than the European Union, less than Canada and less than New Zealand; less than most of the countries with which we like to compare ourselves, including those with conservative governments.

The Prime Minister says the offer is better than Japan's target and better than China's.

But Japan has lost most of its low-emission power in the wake of the Fukushima​ disaster and China is a developing nation with living standards a fraction of ours. Its offer to cap its emissions before 2030 is more than we could have hoped for.

What's clever about Abbott's offer is that it's just enough for us to be taken seriously. We're at the bottom of a pack, we are not promising as much as needed, but at least we are in the pack.

And the Prime Minister says he has to be "economically responsible".

"We have got to reduce our emissions, but we have got to reduce our emissions in ways which are consistent with continued strong growth," he said on Tuesday.

Evoking an image of balanced scales, he said the last thing he wanted to do was to "strengthen the environment and, at the same time, damage our economy".

Which would make sense if the scales weren't so outrageously unbalanced. His own economic modelling makes the balance clear.

Abbott says it concludes that the cost of a 26 per cent cut in emissions will be "between 0.2 and 0.3 per cent of GDP in the year of 2030".

That's right, between 0.2 and 0.3 per cent of GDP. Not between 0.2 and 0.3 per cent a year, which would be noticeable, but far less than that – about 0.01 to 0.02 per cent a year, which would mean that in 15 years, the economy would be 0.2 to 0.3 per cent smaller than it would have been.

How big would it have been? By then, the projections in the intergenerational report have the economy being one and a half times as big as it is today.

Some of it will be the result of population growth – our population will be 21 per cent bigger by then – but the rest will the result of a higher standard of living, if the projections in the intergenerational report turn out to be correct.

By 2030, instead of being worth $1.6 trillion, the Australian economy will be worth $2.4 trillion; that's unless something dents that growth.

Abbott's modelling shows that the dent from an emissions target of 26 per cent would be 0.03 per cent. The dent would mean that instead of being worth $2.4 trillion when rounded to one decimal place, the economy would be worth $2.4 trillion when rounded to one decimal place. It'd be hard to see.

And hard to feel.

It would amount to $7 billion in a $2.4 trillion economy.

But by then, even with the emissions target, the economy would be growing at the rate of about $5 billion every four weeks. In six weeks, it would have made up the $7 billion it lost as a result of the emissions reduction target.

If you don't much mind feeling as well off as you did six weeks ago, you're going to not much mind an emissions reduction target of 26 per cent. Nor would you mind one much bigger.

The Climate Change Authority's assessment of what is needed works out at a 45 to 63 per cent cut in emissions on 2005 levels. It might set us back 14 weeks.

That's how small an economic price we would need to pay to do everything that could reasonably be expected to limit the increase in global temperature. That's how easy a confident government would have found it to do more.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Click to

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Revenge, bloodymindedness and gullibility. The untaxing of capital gains

How on earth did we come to be lumbered with a tax rule so bad it is disliked by the Treasury, the Reserve Bank, the Business Council, the Council of Social Service, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and both of Tony Abbott's most trusted business advisers?

And why on earth is Abbott still clinging to it?

The storyof how we came to be saddled with a system that taxes wages at twice the rate of profits made from trading real estate is an epic tale of revenge, incompetence, bloody-mindedness and gullibility. Along the way it has forced Treasurer Joe Hockey to set income tax rates higher than he should and fed an explosion in house prices by supercharging negative gearing.

It is, as economist Rory Robertson told his clients in the early 2000s, "almost as though the Australian tax system has been screaming at taxpayers to gear up to earn increased capital gains rather than to work harder to earn increased wages or salaries".

The tale begins in 1985 with what now seem two unremarkable decisions...

As part of the tax white paper process, Labor treasurer Paul Keating made fringe benefits and capital gains subject to tax. Remarkably, up to that point they hadn't been. It meant that if you were paid half your salary in benefits you weren't taxed on it. If you made half your income buying and selling property or shares, you weren't taxed on that. Only ordinary wage earners paid full tax.

These days the Coalition claims to have supported Labor's reforms of the 1980s. But it didn't support those two. The then opposition leader John Howard fumed. "Both should be scrapped – lock, stock and barrel," he said.

Labor made a generous and unnecessary concession. Instead of taxing the entire profit on the purchase and resale of shares or property, it taxed only the profit over and above the rate of inflation. This meant a negatively geared landlord could deduct from their taxable income all their interest payments (including the inflation component) but would have added to their taxable income only their "real" profit (excluding the inflation component).

But over time the rate of inflation fell. More than 8 per cent when Labor introduced the concession, it was heading to 2 per cent by the time Howard took over as prime minister in 1996. Speculators were close to being properly taxed. So under cover of introducing the goods and services tax, he asked his friend John Ralph to conduct a review of "business" taxation, sneaking in a very specific reference to personal tax.

The panel was to examine "capping the rate of tax applying to capital gains for individuals at 30 per cent".

The stock exchange lobbied hard. It commissioned a US economist associated with Reagan-era tax cuts to produce modelling showing that cuts to the capital gains tax rate would be "would be close to self-funding".

They would "yield large revenue feedbacks as holders of relevant assets are provided a greater incentive to sell". Really.

The stock exchange put (rough) numbers on it. At the time capital gains tax collections amounted to 0.4 per cent of GDP. If Australia cut the rate to near where it was in the United States, collections could climb to 0.7 per cent.

Ralph bought it. Under the heading "Rewarding Risk and Innovation", he told Howard to tax only half of each capital gain, and found that on balance the change would bring in more money than it lost.

Fifteen years on, it's possible to assess that claim. Before the cut, capital gains tax accounted for 0.4 per cent of GDP. In the latest year for which we have figures (2012-13) it brought in just 0.2 per cent.

Had capital gains tax been as effective as it was before Howard cut it, it would have brought in an extra $3 billion.

Ralph thought the cut would "encourage a greater level of investment, particularly in innovative, high-growth companies". Instead, it delivered windfall gains to those who had already bought real estate and encouraged everyone else to dive in.

Labor's Kim Beazley waved it through. Only Labor's Mark Latham was prescient, telling a largely uninterested Parliament the cut would "add to the great Australian disease of asset and property speculation, particularly in our big cities".

Reserve Bank official Luci Ellis told a parliamentary hearing last week that the capital gains tax cut boosted property prices more than share prices because property was easier to borrow against.

"It is just more profitable to negatively gear property, because you can gear it more," she said.

The Bank's submission to the home ownership inquiry fingers the capital gains tax cut as one of the key reasons borrowing to buy investment properties exploded from 1999. These days more than half of all the dollars lent to buy houses are snapped up by investors.

Tony Shepherd, handpicked by Abbott to head his commission of audit, says he would scrap the discount. "I can't see any reason for treating capital gains any different from income tax," he told a conference in June.

David Murray, picked by Abbott to head his financial systems inquiry, came out in favour of cutting the capital gains concession. The Business Council has called for a rethink, saying such concessions "distort investor behaviour, particularly at a time of rapid capital gains". The Henry tax review wanted the discount to be cut to 40 per cent and applied to all forms of saving. Labor said no. The Treasury uses its latest tax discussion paper to pose a simple question: to what extent do the benefits of the concession outweigh the cost?

Axing the capital gains tax discount would render negative gearing impotent. It would fund a cut in income tax and take the heat out of the property market. Just about everyone in Abbott's corner agrees, apart from Abbott himself, who's stopped listening.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Click to

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

The Trans Pacific Partnership is still alive and still capable of doing us harm

Don't for one second think the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead.

Talks to seal the mega-deal between Australia and 11 other nations representing 40 per cent of the world's economy broke up without agreement in Hawaii on Saturday, but agreement is close.

Those involved say all it needs is for a few of the parties to give ground on a few sticking points and all 25 chapters are ready to go.

The 12 trade ministers could meet again within weeks, before the end of August, and declare the deal done. The United States is desperate to get it signed before its extended election season gets into high gear. Canada has an election in October.

Australia is holding out for wants an exemption from so-called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) rules for decisions concerning health and the environment, and has so far held out against measures that would prop up the extraordinarily high prices of biologic drugs. But they are differences creative language could smooth over.

A draft of the investment chapter published by Wikileaks shows that Australia has asked to exempt four organisations, including the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, from ISDS. But the request is in square brackets, indicating other nations don't agree. As a back-up, the chapter includes language almost exempting decisions designed to to protect objectives such as public health, safety and the environment. They would not be subject to ISDS "except in rare circumstances".

What this means in practice is that our Trade Minister Andrew Robb could agree to the clause and say Australia couldn't be sued in external tribunals over decisions concerning health and the environment (as it is now by tobacco giant Philip Morris under a different agreement) and later then down the track find himself in the middle of a "rare circumstance".

The clause wouldn't stop Philip Morris or its ilk suing Australia, it would just make it more likely Australia would win...

So far Australia has shelled out about $50 million defending its plain-packaging laws, even though it will probably win.

Australia's hard line on data protection for biologic drugs could also be softened. Biologic drugs are those made with living organisms. There are horrendously expensive. Soliris treats a rare immune disease. It costs our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme $500,000 per prescription. The PBS onsells it for $37.70, or $6.10 if the patient holds a concession card.

To get a drug approved, the manufacturer has to submit data from trials to demonstrate that it works and is safe. After five years that data is available to other firms that might want to make it after the patent expires. The US wants to lift the restriction to 12 years, locking away the data for an extra seven years and keeping prices high.

Data protection is separate to patent protection, which lasts for 20 years. If there's a big delay between the discovery of the drug and its approval, it can be additional to patent protection.

And it works the opposite way. Whereas patents grant exclusivity in return for handing over data, data protection grants exclusivity in return for not handing over data.

"You would have to sit in a committee room for a long time to work out a worse policy," says Nicholas Gruen, a patent expert who has prepared reports for the Australian government. "It grants a monopoly in return for nothing."

The US is reportedly considering a compromise to placate Australia. It's a base period of five years, followed by an extension of three years "under certain circumstances". However meaningful, it would allow both sides to claim they had won.

But even considering the idea makes plain how debauched the whole concept of trade agreements has become. In earlier decades the past trade agreements were unambiguously good for the citizens of the nations involved. They cut prices. This one puts them up. The US is using it it in an attemptto try to keep medicines expensive and the cost of taking on US corporations high. In Canada the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly is using an ISDS clause in the North American agreement to sue the government for failing to grant it two patents knocked back on the grounds that they weren't sufficiently innovative. Eli Lilly wants $500 million.

Somehowwhere along the road from the 1980s, trade agreements morphed from pacts designed to cut trade barriers to pacts designed to erect them. Negotiators who had previously worked to advance free trade started working to advance the interests of US corporations.

We saw it first in the early `90s in an odd request from the World Trade Organisation for Australia to extend its patent term from 16 years to 20 years. The then Labor government waved it through, handing existing patent holders an extra four years of high prices. A Productivity Commission study found the decision cost more than $376 million.

From then on the demands kept building, most of them made in secret. Much of what we know about the pact presently being negotiated in our name comes from Wikileaks. US corporations are allowed to see what's in it, ours are not.

Trade negotiating has become an exercise in fighting off bad proposals rather than enabling good ones. 

Gruen wants us to get back to basics. He says before we even start negotiations we should make three things clear: that tougher intellectual property laws hurt consumers; that they also have the potential to hurt producers who themselves rely on intellectual property; and that they can only ever be justified where the benefits exceed the costs.

It would put economics rather than tradeoffs at the heart of trade negotiations. It would give us an idea of what we are doing.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Click to

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Low growth ahead. Why the Reserve Bank won't ride to Abbott's rescue

Don't expect another cut in interest rates

It's true that Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens is holding open the possibility of further cuts. It remains, he said last week, "on the table". But further cuts are far less likely than they would have been, for three reasons also spelled out in last week's speech.

One is that the Australian dollar has plunged to about where the Reserve Bank wants it. In the past Stevens has said it was "too high", overvalued, "and not just by a few cents".

Invited to repeat his comments last Wednesday he said merely that the dollar was "adjusting, as you would expect".

He had previously nominated a target of US75¢. The dollar has since fallen to US73¢, a six-year low. If the wish for a much lower dollar was ever a secondary consideration in Stevens' decisions about interest rates, it isn't now.

Another reason is his fear there will come a point when further cuts encourage dangerously reckless borrowing. "Monetary policy works partly by prompting risk-taking behaviour," he said in Sydney last week. "Beyond a certain point, it can be dangerous."

Although that hadn't been the case to date, Stevens said in the future he would need to look more closely at whether further cuts boosted "sustainable economic growth rather than simply boosted growth".

And another reason – the most important – is that the bank is in the process of lowering its ambition. It is preparing to accept a more modest rate of economic growth than it was only months ago.

Let me explain...

Next Friday the bank will release its latest forecasts for economic growth. It is likely to revise them down, as it has done in each of the past four quarters. This time the revision should bring them so low as to be inconsistent with its widely understood target for economic growth, which is somewhere between 3 and 3.25 per cent.

The bank calls its target "trend growth". The trend for the past decade or so, it is thought to be the sweet spot above which inflation starts to climb and below which unemployment starts to rise.

The bank cuts, or lifts, interest rates until it gets growth back to trend, or so it had been thought. Until Wednesday.

Stevens began his discussion of the trend by pointing out that, oddly, jobs growth has picked up this year even though growth had been, "according to the available statistics, below trend".

It's been well below trend at present 2.3 per cent, although currently forecast by the bank to return to 3.25 per cent in 2016-17 – and it defies conventional wisdom for the unemployment rate to be falling, as it has been all year, while growth remains anaemic.

Stevens said it was possible that either the employment statistics or the growth statistics were wrong. It was possible too that our present unusually restrained wage growth was keeping people in work who otherwise be out of work.

But then he raised another possibility: that the actual trend is "lower than the 3 per cent or 3.25 per cent we have assumed for many years".

If so, the Reserve Bank would have no reason to cut rates from here on, even if it was to forecast growth never reaching 3 or 3.25 per cent, as it may be about to do next Friday.

This isn't as bad as it sounds, he hastened to add. What matters for ordinary Australians is growth per head. This needn't dip much as total growth dips because Australia's population growth is growing more slowly.

It is a measure of how new the governor's thoughts are that until now the bank's quarterly roundup of economic statistics hasn't even included growth per head. The update is scheduled for next Wednesday.

If not 3 to 3.25 per cent, what is the bank's new growth target? Modelling by former Reserve Bank official Paul Bloxham suggests it's 2.50 to 2.75 per cent, which is not too far away from what we have now. He believes that as things stand, growth any higher than 2.50 to 2.75 per cent will push up inflation and not be welcomed by the bank.

If so, an end to rate cuts may be the least of our problems. The budget deficit forecasts are predicated on a rebound in economic growth to 3.25 per cent. If the rebound doesn't happen, if growth misses the target by 0.50 percentage points, future budget deficits will be far deeper than forecast in May – as much as $10 billion per year deeper by 2020 and $30 billion per year deeper by 2025, according to the parliamentary budget office.

Extra tax, whether from the GST or somewhere else, will become essential. Tony Abbott used to say that the former government didn't have have a revenue problem, it had spending problem. Whether that was true or not, it won't be true for Abbott now. He'll have to raise revenue from somewhere.

His efforts to do it will probably depress growth further. The Reserve Bank has made it clear there are limits to how much it can help him out.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Click to

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Done right, negative gearing can work

Spot the odd one out:  the treasury's tax discussion paper, the Murray report into the financial system, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Reserve Bank have all come out in favour of a re-examination of negative gearing or the capital gains tax concession that underpins it

It's only the government that is holding back. "We're not going to fiddle with negative gearing because the last time a Labor government fiddled with negative gearing, it destroyed the rental market in most of our major cities", a defiant prime minister told a Liberal state council meeting last week.

Never mind that he's wrong. Readily available graphs show that rent increases slowed in more cities than they rose when Labor temporarily wound back negative gearing in the mid 1980s. Never mind that in every city rents have increased faster since the reinstatement of negative gearing than they did in the years when it was wound back. Never mind that the explosion in negative gearing since the turn of the century has helped push house prices beyond the reach of genuine buyers.

Negative gearing and the associated capital gains tax concession aren't the only reason houses prices are soaring. But they are part of the problem, a part that can easily be dealt with without hurting renters or anyone else (including investors presently negatively gearing).

Tony Abbott's stand is more about differentiating himself from Labor than it is about getting people into houses. It's about rhetoric rather than results.

In order to examine why house prices are soaring beyond the reach of ordinary Australians it's necessary to first establish that they are. After all, didn't research conducted within the Reserve Bank unveiled this month conclude that house prices were actually undervalued?

Last week's Reserve Bank submission to the parliament's home ownership inquiry shows typical homes now cost more of the typical wage than ever before – in excess of five times the average disposable income. Back in 1990 they cost three times the average disposable income. Before negative gearing took off at the turn of the century they cost four times the disposable income.

But the RBA says that doesn't necessarily mean houses are less affordable...

Record low mortgage rates have pushed down the cost of repayments to well below their decade long average. Compared to renting, buying is exceptionally cheap according to the preliminary research. Taking into account the high likelihood of continuing low rates the research finds that, compared to renting, paying off a home is cheaper than it's been in three decades.

Except that that's not the end of it. Cheap repayments aren't much help if you can't afford the deposit.

The RBA's submission shows that the typical cost of a deposit is higher than it has ever been, around 100 per cent of average disposable income – or it would be, were it not for the fact that many lenders have relaxed their standards.

But it says even taking into account of relaxed standards, deposits are more expensive than they used to be, forcing Australians without very good access to cash to either postpone or forget about buying a house. Typically these people are young, and without well-off parents to help them out. High prices are entrenching inequality.

A frightening graph in the Reserve Bank's submission shows the home ownership rate among middle-income Australians has slid since the turn of the century while the rate among high-income Australians has held up.

The turn of the century is when prices took off, climbing faster and for longer than ever before. A few months earlier in September 1999 the Howard government excluded from tax half of every capital gain, making negative gearing suddenly much more attractive (for shares as well as property). Until then, if you used losses to cut your taxable income you still had to face tax when you eventually sold. Afterwards you could deduct 100 per cent of your annual losses but be taxed on only 50 per cent of your eventual profits.

An extraordinary one in 10 Australian taxpayers became negative gearers. In order to get the properties they had to push up prices and elbow out would be owner-occupiers. Sure, they could have built new homes rather than buy existing ones, but they lacked the patience. Fourteen out of every 15 dollars borrowed for investment housing is spent on existing homes.

Labor is considering a proposal to put negative gearing to work. It would allow existing negative gearers to keep doing what they are doing. No-one would be rushed into selling anything. Anyone who wanted a new negatively geared property would have to build it. It's the same rule we apply to foreign investors. They are allowed to build but not to buy. The Melbourne-based McKell Institute reckons it would boost the supply of new houses by 10 per cent while boosting the annual tax take by $1 billion.

Labor ought to be able to sell it. It can rely on the treasury, the Reserve Bank, the OECD and the financial system inquiry for tacit support. Only the government is out of step. Labor can position itself as the party of more affordable housing.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Click to

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Trans Pacific Partnership. Why we don't know what we are giving away

The US Senate has given the green light, and Australia is set to buckle. If you don't yet know what TPP stands for, listen up. Our government could sign it within weeks. Only then will we really know what's in it.

That's right. As with the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement and the Japan-Australia Free Trade Agreement, the content of the Trans-Pacific Partnership will remain secret right up until the day it is signed. Afterwards, our parliament will be able to look at it, but not to change it. Alice is inside the looking glass.

A Senate committee reported on the processes surrounding the TPP on Thursday. It said the parliament would be presented with an all-or-nothing choice. It could examine the TPP (after it had been signed) and either vote for or against it, but not change a word.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was a lone voice at the hearings supporting the present arrangement (even it relented afterwards, allowing members of Parliament to see a copy of the draft TPP in a locked room on the condition that they made no copies themselves, took no notes and breathed not a word to anyone outside the room).

It said anyone who had wanted an input into the agreement could have sent it a submission. But it missed the point. It's hard to know that you need to write a submission if you don't know what's being proposed...

Trish Hepworth of the Australian Digital Alliance said most people when they hear there is going to be a trade agreement don't think: "Oh my goodness,  I run a library; there is a trade agreement; this is going to mean I cannot digitise newspapers past 1955 anymore." Yet she said that is what happened as a result of Australia-US Free Trade Agreement.

The department runs consultation sessions with community groups, providing "over 1000 stakeholder briefings on the TPP alone since 2011", but they have been curiously bereft of information. Alan Kirkland from the consumer group Choice said the meetings take the form of "tell us your views". The Australian Industry group said attending them is like "voicing concerns blindfolded".

It matters because these days so-called trade agreements are about far more than trade. The Productivity Commission insists on calling them "preferential" rather than "free trade" agreements, arguing that they often impede trade. Australia's 1800 agreements overlap and interfere with each other in ways that are hard to see through. In order to get preferential entry to the United States under the US agreement, Australian firms are not allowed to use more than a certain percentage of materials that come from other countries such as New Zealand, even though New Zealand goods are allowed into Australia duty-free, and so on.

A study of the Australia-US free trade agreement 10 years on found it had most probably cut rather than boosted Australian trade. Beforehand we were told it would be worth billions.

Many businesses won't use them. "The paperwork to qualify was so enormous it wasn't worth the effort," said one of the respondents to a Chamber of Commerce survey.

Until four years ago the Stafford Group made Anthony Squires suits at Preston in Melbourne. It had suited up every Australian prime minister from Menzies to Rudd. It was happy to pay duty on the fabric it imported, knowing its New Zealand competitors had to pay it too. Then a changed interpretation of the rules meant New Zealand manufacturers were able to use duty-free cloth to make suits for Australians (although not for New Zealanders). Stafford appealed to prime minister Gillard, was turned down, and moved production to Fiji.

The Trans Pacific Partnership agreement being negotiated between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam holds out the promise of actually breaking down barriers. But the leaks suggest its provisions will be inconsistent with those of existing agreements, creating still more red tape. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry begged the Senate inquiry for a "one in, one out" rule under which obsolete agreements would be cancelled as soon as new ones came into force. It calls the mess we've got: "the noodle bowl".

Last week the US Senate gave President Obama fast-track authority to quickly conclude the Trans Pacific Partnership talks. Leaks published by Wikileaks suggest the big changes for Australia would relate not to trade, but to intellectual property and so-called investor-state dispute settlement. The Coalition's John Howard successfully resisted the incorporation of ISDS provisions into the Australia-US agreement in 2004. This time the US is more insistent. It says there will be no agreement without them.

ISDS clauses allow foreign firms (but not local firms) to sue the Australian government in foreign tribunals over decisions they don't like. A tobacco company is doing it now using the terms of an obscure Hong Kong Australia agreement. The Productivity Commission says the number of ISDS cases worldwide has grown from almost none in 20 years to around 600 today. The Chief Justice of the High Court says they are a threat to national sovereignty.

The Medical Journal says the leaked intellectual property changes seem designed to keep pharmaceutical prices high.

Trade minister Andrew Robb accuses critics of the as -yet-unseen agreement of being anti-trade. But they're not. There's no greater believer in free trade than the Productivity Commission, and few organisations more enthusiastic than the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It's the new layers of red tape that worry them, and the add-ons – changes to Australian law that wouldn't stand a chance of making it through Parliament if they were proposed and debated in in their own right.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Click to