JSCOT Inquiry into the trade agreement process recommends small changes, Labor and Greens support more

August 26, 2021: The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) has finally released its Report 193 on the trade agreement process in Australia, 12 months after public hearings were completed. There has been no official explanation of this long delay. It may be that the government, with the controlling majority on the committee, did not want to release the report, which recommends some changes to the process, while reviews of other trade agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) were underway. 

As has been acknowledged by several previous inquiries, the current trade agreement process lacks transparency and democratic accountability. Trade negotiations are initiated by Cabinet, negotiated in secret with very limited public consultation, and the text is not published until after they are signed. There is no independent evaluation of the economic, social or environmental costs and benefits of agreements before they aresigned, and Parliament only votes on the enabling legislation, not on the whole text of the agreement. This is  the first time that a government-dominated  committee has  recommended changes to the process, and is a small  response to our advocacy over many years.

The Report makes the following modest recommendations (p. xvii) in the direction of more transparency and independent evaluation of trade agreements :

  • the Government should publish negotiation aims  and objectives for all future trade treaty negotiations;
  • the Government should brief the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties biannually on the status of upcoming and current free trade agreement negotiations;
  • Government should consider the use of non-disclosure agreements with key stakeholders to allow for improved consultation in certain areas of trade agreement negotiation, having regard to  the approaches and mechanisms used by the United States and by the European Union;
  • the Government should consider implementing a process through which independent modelling and analysis of a trade agreement, at both the macro and sectoral levels, is undertaken in the future by the Productivity Commission, or similarly independent and expert body, and provided to the Committee alongside the National Interest Analysis.

Note that the independent evaluation would be undertaken only after the agreement is signed, when the agreement would be difficult to change.

The Labor and Green minority on the committee supported these recommendations but made additional remarks, supporting more changes, including that the text be published and the evaaluation take place before trade agreements are signed.

Labor cited its policy which supports further action on transparency and independent evaluation which included:

  • briefing the JSCOT at the end of each round of negotiations for trade agreements, not just twice a year
  • legislating to establish a system of ‘Accredited Trade Advisors’ from industry, unions and civil society groups who would provide real-time feedback on draft trade agreement texts during negotiations;
  • providing public updates on each round of negotiations and releasing draft texts during negotiations where this is feasible; and
  • legislating to require an Independent National Interest Assessment be conducted on every new trade agreement before it is signed to examine the economic, strategic, and social impact (p. p. 39-42).

The Greens criticised the accredited advisor proposal which would maintain secrecy during negotiations, recommended that negotiating texts be released to the public, and that the Government undertake systematic reform to ensure a more transparent, democratic process for negotiating treaties, including releasing final texts of agreements for public and parliamentary discussion and independent evaulation before they are authorised for signing by Cabinet (p.45-47).

The Committee’s recommendations are not binding on the government, and we must await the government’s response before any action might be taken to change the process. See AFTINET's media release here.