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Opinion_

Time to say no to shameful TPP trade-offs

30 September 2015
Australia has little to gain and much to lose in the current Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations

It is time to ask why the Australian Government would secretly trade off democratic rights to decide national laws on medicines, public health and copyright, writes Dr Patricia Ranald.

Medicine tubes

Community groups in Australia and other TPP countries have pressured governments not to agree to higher prices on costly medicines. Image: iStock.

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Trade Ministers' talks between the United States, Australia, Japan and nine other Pacific Rim countries are set to resume on September 30 in Atlanta, Georgia in a final attempt to complete the deal before the Canadian elections in mid-October and the intensification of the US presidential race. The TPP is so unpopular that these governments want it signed before elections take place, without further public debate.

The last TPP Ministerial talks collapsed at the end of July, because the US and Japan could not agree about market access to their own agricultural and vehicle markets, and so could not make market access offers to others. Market access talks between the US, Japan, Mexico and Canada, and between those countries, Australia and others have continued. Trade Ministers will meet to seal the deal with final trade-offs only if market access issues are resolved.

The TPP is promoted as a huge trade deal covering 40 percent of the global economy. Australia has little to gain because it already has free trade agreements with nine of the 12 countries, but could lose much. The US is driving the agenda on behalf of its pharmaceutical, media and tobacco industries, which want rules which suit their needs, but would tie the hands of future governments.

The TPP is facing two rocks of resistance. Firstly community groups in Australia and other TPP countries have pressured governments not to agree to stronger monopolies and higher prices on very costly biologic medicines, stronger copyright monopolies and controls on the Internet, and to special rights for foreign investors to sue governments for damages in international tribunals over changes to domestic legislation. This is known as Investor-State Dispute Settlement or ISDS.

The Philip Morris tobacco company is currently using these rights in an obscure Hong Kong-Australia investment agreement to sue the Australian government for billions of dollars over our plain packaging law. Tobacco companies are frantically lobbying to ensure they retain and expand their rights to sue more governments over tobacco regulation through the TPP. Polls show 61 percent of Australians oppose such rights.

Secondly, powerful US agriculture, vehicle and other industry groups have pressured the US against offering increased access to markets like sugar, dairy and other products. This follows a pattern established in the 2004 US-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), when the US demanded substantial concessions on medicines, copyright and investor rights to sue, but did not make its very low offers on agricultural market access until the final stages of the negotiations.

The Productivity Commission has recently shown that stronger patents and copyright are a net cost to the Australian economy. The Productivity Commission also opposes foreign investor rights to sue governments, because it has no economic benefits but gives greater legal rights to global corporations which already have enormous market power. John Howard's Coalition government did not agree to it in the US-Australia FTA but the Turnbull Government may be prepared to do so in the TPP in return for token access to US sugar and other markets.

There is also massive community opposition to the TPP in the US because of the restraints it will place on future US policies. The US government is caught between a rock and a hard place because of the promises it made to persuade the US Congress to give up its right to amend the TPP and allow only a yes/no vote. Promises of stronger monopoly rights on medicines and copyright cannot be delivered to the pharmaceutical and media industries without substantial concessions on agricultural market access, which in turn cannot be delivered because of pressures from agribusiness.

After more than five years of TPP negotiations it is time to ask why our government would secretly trade off democratic rights to decide national laws on medicines, public health and copyright, and agree to have such laws challenged by global corporations. These are issues which should be determined through open democratic parliamentary processes, not traded away behind closed doors. The Australian government should refuse such shameful trade-offs.

Dr Patricia Ranald is a research associate in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. This article was first published in The Age.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Division of Humanities and Social Sciences)