Australia's largest business organisation has called for the government to open up the negotiation of trade deals such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.
As the trade minister Andrew Robb responded to criticism of his actions in keeping the text of the Trans Pacific agreement secret, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it wanted negotiations to be monitored in real time by the Productivity Commission and wanted draft texts disclosed to registered community and business organisations as happens in the United States.
Criticised for keeping the negotiations secret in a so-called health impact statement released by the University of NSW Centre for Health Equity Training Research and Evaluation, Mr Robb said the text of the agreement would be made public as soon as it was agreed between the twelve nations.
"The text will not be kept secret. Once it is agreed between participants, it will be made public and also subjected to parliamentary scrutiny," he said.
"Since 2011, the department of foreign affairs and trade has conducted more than 1000 briefings with interested stakeholders, including groups representing health, pharmaceuticals, consumers and unions."
The Chamber of Commerce wants negotiating drafts to be shown to community and business groups who would then be under an obligation to keep them confidential.
Negotiators would retain their power to conclude deals without reference to the parliament but would be required to "properly consider and balance the merits of civil society's views at all phases of negotiation"...
In Australia the parliament can accept or reject but cannot amend agreements negotiated by the minister.
The Chamber also wants the direct costs to the government of negotiating treaties to be clearly identified in future budgets. Its director of trade and international affairs Bryan Clark said the Australian community had no idea how much money had been spent negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership and so was unable to judge the worth of exercise.
Mr Robb said last month Australia takes 22 specialists to each negotiation backed up by teams at home. The United States takes 80.
Mr Clark said Australia collected no data on how trade deals were actually used after they were completed and was unable to quickly support businesses that found the concessions negotiated were not offered when their goods arrived at docks in other countries.
The Chamber's submission to the Senate's inquiry into the treaty-making process says Australian negotiators do little to ensure that each new trade treaty is consistent with existing ones leading to a mish-mash of overlapping treaties that interfere with each other.
In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald
. Trans Pacific Partnership a threat to health, says assessment
. Trans Pacific Partnership. What is being negotiated in our name?
. Patents. The rules that hurt the Australian drug industry