There’s a lot we don’t know about the UK trade agreement Australia is about to sign

June 17, 2021: In an oped in The Conversation, AFTINET Convenor Dr Patricia Ranald sets out the big dangers and the continuing undemocratic process in the in-principle agreement for an Australia-UK Free Trade agreement announced overnight on June 15, 2021.

The Australian government has released a five-page summary, explaining that Australian farmers will benefit from tariff-free access to the UK for limited amounts of Australian beef, lamb, sugar and dairy products (but will have to wait ten years for the full elimination of tariffs). Australian consumers will benefit from immediate zero tariffs on products like UK whiskey and cars. Longer working holiday visas may be available for citizens from both countries.

It will take at least a month for the deal to be finalised and signed, and only after the signing will the Australian public see the full text and a parliamentary committee be given the right to inquire into it but not change it.

The UK post-Brexit is desperate to sign one-on-one trade agreements and sees this first one with Australia is more political and symbolic, helping the UK in its application to join the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) including Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Mexico, Chile and Peru.

Like the CPTPP, the Australia-UK Free Trade Agreement is likely to have as many as 30 chapters, some of which restrict the ability of governments to regulate in fields including medicines, essential services and data privacy, and may include investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS).

UK companies are frequent users of ISDS, having launched 90 recorded ISDS cases, the third most after the US and the Netherlands. Australian companies have launched nine.

ISDS rules in the Australia-UK FTA would give UK mining companies such as Rio Tinto the right to claim compensation for new laws to protect Indigenous heritage areas, and UK aged care companies such as Bupa the right to claim compensation for new regulations arising from the Aged Care Royal Commission.

The UK has also said in its negotiating objectives that it wants to preserve its “existing intellectual property standards”. Pharmaceutical companies already have 20-year monopolies on new medicines, and the UK asserts an extra 10-year “data protection” monopoly before data is released enabling production of cheaper generic competitors. Australia asserts five-year data protection.

The Australian government should release the text for public scrutiny and independent assessment of its costs and benefits before it is signed, so that we are able to see what is being traded away before it’s too late.