By Leith van Onselen
Australia’s Trade Minister, Andrew Robb, appeared on ABC’s The Business on Wednesday night (extract above) and delivered the following serve to opponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement: “The criticism [of the TPP] is largely coming from some long standing opponents of trade. They’ve been voices against any agreement going back years not just this TPP. The same names turn up in all sorts of active groups across the community representing all sorts of supposed concerns”. “The fact of the matter is, we have had over 1,000 consultations with industry groups, civil groups, with legal groups, with all of those areas of concern. We have been conferring with the interested parties in Australia. We can’t negotiate unless we know how propositions being put to us by other countries would impact on Australia. We need their advice. It’s not secretive”…Andrew Robb could not delivered a better straw man argument.
His claim that opponents of the TPP are fundamentally opposed to trade is wrong. Many notable commentators and advocates of free trade, including the former head of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and two nobel prize winning economists, have voiced their opposition to the TPP precisely because it is anti-free trade in the areas of intellectual property and investment.
Need I remind Mr Robb that the former director-general of the WTO, Supachai Panitchpakdi, claimed the TPP represents a step backwards to the days before the WTO when the US and Europe controlled the global trading system to the detriment of other economies.
Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, raised similar fears in an open letter posted in late 2013, whereby he questioned negotiators’ secrecy and warned about “grave risks on all sorts of topics” posed by the TPP, as well as claiming that it contains “many of the worst features of the worst laws in the TPP countries, making needed reforms extremely difficult if not impossible”.
Paul Krugman, also a nobel prize winning economist in the area of trade policy, has also slammed the TPP, noting that it would “increase the ability of certain corporations to assert control over intellectual property [including] drug patents and movie rights”. Krugman also claimed that “there isn’t a compelling case for this deal, from either a global or a national point of view”, and that the “economic case is weak, at best”, with “the push for T.P.P… weirdly out of touch with both economic and political reality”. A full summary of Krugman’s views about the TPP can be read here.
Are any of these opponents of the TPP intrinsically anti-trade, Mr Robb? Hardly. Rather, they recognise that the TPP would achieve the opposite of freeing-up trade by significantly strengthen the pricing power of the powerful US pharmaceutical and digital industries, lessening competition, and worsening outcomes for consumers and taxpayers alike.
Andrew Robb’s argument about adequate consultation are also laughable. The Liberal’s own Bill Heffernan last month conceded that the consultation process is a sham and that members of Parliament and other interested parities have been kept in the dark:
“Politicians and governments need to have enough self-confidence to be able to have a contest of ideas, rather than doing something in secret and dropping it on the table,” he told Fairfax Media.
“I’m concerned about unintended consequences. I’m worried about how much will be fait accompli”…
Mr Heffernan said most concerning was the Investor State Dispute Settlement clause, which empowers multinationals to sue governments if new laws such as food safety standards harm their profits.
“I want to be asking these detailed questions, about the capacity for corporations to sue governments”…
…[Heffernan] wants to see the TPP released to the public so that it can be tested by people with “dirt under their fingernails”. He said: “It ought to pass the paddock test.”
“The average person here in Parliament hasn’t got their head around a range of things. If you don’t know what’s on the table, how do you know what questions to ask?”
The opposition parties have expressed similar concerns around secrecy and the overall lack of transparency surrounding the TPP.
Meanwhile, Australian health experts have raised “grave concerns” that the TPP could force Australian taxpayers to spend millions of dollars more to subsidise medicines. Concerns have also arisen that the peak lobby group for American pharmaceutical manufacturers has been given a seat at the TPP negotiating table, however, public health and community organisations have been bared from accessing the draft text, heightening the risks of poor outcomes for consumers and taxpayers.
It is worth pointing out that US Congressmen have received access to the draft TPP text, as have the Malaysian parliament, whereas Australia’s parliamentarians have been kept completely in the dark.
If the TPP is going to be such a great deal, as claimed by Trade Minister Andrew Robb, then why is the Government denying interested parties access?