AFTINET submission to the parliamentary committee review of the trade agreement process seeks change

August 3, 2020: The AFTINET submission to the Joint standing Committee on Treaties review is here, with a summary below.

Trade agreements are legally binding, with dispute processes that can result in trade penalties, and are difficult to revoke. They have commitments not only on tariffs, but on laws and policy that should normally be decided through open democratic parliamentary processes, including investor rights to sue governments, and essential services like medicines, energy, water, and on digital trade, temporary workers, local industry policy, government procurement and product standards. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed flaws in trade policy including over-dependence on imports of essential health products and lack of local manufacturing capacity.

The process for negotiating, signing and ratifying trade agreements should be subject to the highest levels of public debate, scrutiny and democratic accountability to ensure that the benefits outweigh the costs.

But this is not the case. The current trade agreement process is secretive and lacks democratic accountability. Texts of agreements are not released until after they are signed and DFAT consultation processes are limited by lack of access to the text. There is no independent assessment of the economic and social impacts of agreements before signing and parliament only votes on the enabling legislation, not the whole agreement.

The World Trade Organisation multilateral negotiations and the EU provide examples of more open and accountable processes, including release of negotiating texts, and the publication of final texts before they are signed.

AFTINET recommends:

  • Greater involvement of parliament in the decision to commence negotiations, release of negotiating texts and regular consultations on negotiations with all stakeholders during negotiations
  • The Australian government should follow the example of WTO multilateral negotiations and the European Union and should release the final text of agreements for public and parliamentary discussion before they are signed.
  •  After release of the final text, there should be comprehensive independent studies of the economic, regional, health, gender and environmental costs and benefits of agreements, which should be published before they are signed.
  • Legal experts agree that there is no constitutional barrier to Parliament playing a greater role in the treaty decision-making process. After release of the text, the independent assessment of the costs and benefits of the agreement and JSCOT review, Parliament should then decide whether the Executive should approve the agreement for signing.
  • If the agreement is approved by Parliament, and following approval of signing by the Executive, Parliament should then vote on the enabling legislation before ratification.
  • There should be public reviews of trade agreement outcomes five years after entry into force with independent assessments of economic, regional, health, gender and environmental costs and benefits.