Tuesday, March 10, 2015

TPP. We're negotiating for negotiators not for Australians

I get that ordinary Australians don't much like the Trans Pacific Partnership. But businesses?

The deal is being negotiated between the twelve Pacific-facing nations of Australia: the United States, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Vietnam. No-one outside the negotiating teams knows exactly what's in it because the text won't be made public until after it is sealed, quite possibly at a ministers' meeting in Hawaii next month.

Then it'll be too late for Australia to change. That's the way trade agreements work. Our parliament will be able to vote "yes" or "no" to the entire thing, all 20 chapters; but it won't be able to change a word.

Some of the leaks are alarming. They include what British medical journal The Lancet calls an "unprecedented expansion of intellectual property rights that would prolong monopolies on pharmaceuticals and reduce access to affordable and lifesaving generic medicines".

Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme spends $1 billion a year on the 10 most expensive of the super-expensive so-called biologic drugs, manufactured from living organisms.

In addition to patent protection, the manufacturers get five years in which the makers of cheaper generics are unable to use their data to prove their alternatives are safe. The US wants to extend the period to eight years. Deborah Gleeson, from La Trobe University, says that would cost the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme $205 million a year.

It isn't to facilitate trade. It's a measure to restrict trade. And the TPP is full of them.

In one part buyers of pharmaceutical products (such as Australia's PBS) would be restricted in their ability to offer whatever price they wanted to their suppliers (mainly US-owned pharmaceutical companies), a restriction not normally thought of as advancing free trade. In another, even minor breaches of copyright (such as burning a copyrighted DVD for a friend), would become a criminal rather than a civil offence.

And outside tribunals would be able to adjudicate and impose penalties on Australian governments even after their laws had been found valid by Australia's courts...

It would open the way for alcohol manufacturers to take on Australia over laws requiring labelling, food manufacturers to take on Australia over anti-obesity campaigns and mining companies to sue Australia over environmental regulations, as happens in Canada under the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Australian businesses ought to love the TPP. They would get the ability to take on 11 other governments in overseas tribunals, and to the extent that they export intellectual property (Australia is a net importer) they would benefit from the criminalisation of copyright breaches.

But would they actually be able to sell much more product.

It looks as if they wouldn't. The department of foreign affairs and trade said Australia's mega trade deal with the United States, signed 10 years ago, would boost Australia's gross domestic product by $5.7 billion. However, 10 years on, the Australian National University says it has not boosted trade at all. A US Department of Agriculture study says the agricultural component of the  TPP will not boost Australia's GDP at all.

None of which would matter much if agreements such as the TPP weren't so expensive to negotiate and didn't create so much red tape.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry wants the direct costs of negotiating each treaty reported to parliament. And it wants annual assessments of how they are turning out. Like government spending on roads and on events such as the Olympic Games, there are always plenty of forecasts of the benefits before the agreements are signed, but rarely any follow up.

It also wants the "noodle bowl" of overlapping and conflicting agreements cleaned up. Australia has 12 free trade agreements, each with its own compliance rules. Some involve the same countries, but the superseded agreements are never terminated.

Australia hasn't acceded to the international treaty which would require each of its agreements to be consistent with each of the others. The TPP is the latest which won't be.

An unpublished survey of ACCI members find most neither understand nor use Australia's free trade agreements.  

"In my experience, they have been a waste of time, particularly Thailand. The paperwork to qualify was so erroneous it wasn't worth the effort," said one member.

"I know we have one with the US and I know there is one now with Japan and Korea - is that correct?" said another.

Where they do try to comply, their goods are often stopped at the docks and on the other side charged the full rate of duty because the officials don't know about them. Australia doesn't collect information about how many of our goods get through.

The Chamber's submission to the Senate inquiry into the treaty-making process is damning. It wants the secrecy by which the agreements are negotiated opened up so that community and business groups are taken into the confidence of the negotiators in real time, as happens in the United States.

It's how climate change negotiations are handled. It seems to do no harm.

Its most important recommendation is that the Productivity Commission assess the worth of the agreements as they are being negotiated in real time. It would put a stop to many of the agreements that are being negotiated in our name. It might even put a stop to the TPP.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald

Related Posts

. Now business wants more open trans pacific partnership negotiations

. Trans Pacific Partnership. What is being negotiated in our name?

. Trans Pacific Partnership a threat to health, says assessment