TPP faces a rocky road through Parliament

3 February 2016

Originally published by Fairfax media, including The Canberra TimesSydney Morning Herald and The Age

By Dr Patricia Ranald, AFTINET Convener

 

Trans-Pacific Partnership faces a rocky road through Parliament

The signing ceremony on February 4 in Auckland for the Trans-Pacific Partnership is mainly a public relations exercise.

It masks the fact that for Australia and most TPP countries, the public debate and parliamentary process to pass implementing legislation, leading to final ratification of the deal, is just beginning, and it will be a rocky road.

After six years of secret negotiations, the 6000 page text was released on November 5, 2015, but was still subject to "legal scrubbing". The scrubbed text was only released last week, with not enough time to check it before the ceremony. We do know that US corporate interests had been furiously lobbying to get last-minute changes. No wonder the 2015 Senate report which criticised this secret and undemocratic process was called Blind Agreement.

The TPP text is likely to be tabled in the Australian Parliament soon, and examined by parliamentary committees over several months before Parliament votes on the implementing legislation.

The TPP will have almost no economic benefits for Australia, because we already have free trade agreements with nine of the twelve Pacific Rim TPP countries. A World Bank study has estimated that it will result in a minuscule 0.7% increase in Australian GDP after 15 years.

President Obama has said the TPP allows the US to "write the rules for the region." But what benefits US corporate interests is not necessarily in the interests of the majority in the US, let alone in other countries. The New Zealand Labour Party leader with refreshing honesty says the TPP threatens national sovereignty.

The TPP gives foreign investors the right to sue governments over future public interest regulation, known as Investor-State Dispute Settlement. The Trans-Canada company announced in January that it is using ISDS provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement to sue the US government for $15 billion because it decided not to proceed with the controversial Keystone tar sands pipeline for environmental reasons.

Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues that ISDS could be used to undermine regulation required to stabilise financial markets, and undermine regulation to combat climate change pledged by governments in the long-awaited Paris agreement.

Evaluations by public health experts and Doctors without Borders (MSF) show that the TPP also extends and locks in monopoly rights for global pharmaceutical corporations to delay cheaper versions of costly biologic drugs. Copyright experts argue that it locks in copyright monopolies for global media and IT companies which criminalise copyright breaches and restrict future governments from responding to consumer rights and changing technologies. The Productivity Commission and the ACCC have condemned these extensions of monopolies under the guise of free trade.

Strong popular opposition to the TPP in the US has resulted in both Democrat and Republican presidential candidates condemning the TPP. Key Congress members have predicted that Congress will not vote on the TPP implementing legislation until after the presidential elections in November, and that they will seek further concessions from other governments through what is known as the certification process.

This process enables the US Congress to vet other countries' implementing legislation to see if it meets US interests. If not, US demands that the legislation be changed before final ratification. A recent study revealed how this worked in the US-Australia FTA in 2004. After the Australian Parliament had passed the implementing legislation, the US government demanded further changes to copyright law in November 2004 when the two governments were about to exchange formal letters for the ratification of the agreement, saying the agreement would not be ratified without the changes. The Howard government gave in to this blackmail and agreed to push through additional legislation.

It would be foolish for the Australian Parliament to rush to approve implementing legislation before the US Congress has done so, as it may then face demands for further concessions.

We must hold the majority in the Senate accountable to scrutinise all these issues and demand independent evaluations of the economic, health and environmental impacts of the TPP to judge if it is in the public interest. If it is not, the Senate should block the implementing legislation.

Dr Patricia Ranald is convener of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network.