As is the case with these kind of spectacles, and perhaps the measure of Australian politics in general these days, many were left wondering whether all that media glare might have been better directed at more pertinent things — not least of all that highly secretive mega trade deal currently in advanced stages of negotiation. If signed, it could have serious implications for our national sovereignty and the freedoms and rights of all Australians.
You probably haven’t heard much about the TPP. It’s not a variety of heavy-duty toilet paper, though some would argue that it’s not far off. It stands for the Trans Pacific Partnership, a mammoth free trade deal currently being hashed out between Australia and 11 other Pacific Rim nations. Encompassing 40 per cent of the global economy, driven fiercely by the USA and the three ‘Bigs’ — Business, Pharma and Tobacco — it’s one of the most sizeable in scope and reach ever proposed.
It’s also one of the most secretive. You haven’t heard much about it because negotiators have been hush hush on the details, shielding it from media and the prying eyes of the public. It prompts the question: what exactly is inside this beast that warrants such lack of transparency?
Wikileaks shone some light last October, publishing the agreement’s ‘intellectual property’ section. Amongst it, Big Pharma corporations would be entitled to extend the length of their patents, thwarting the production of cheaper alternative medicines while limiting subsidy programs, effectively jacking up the cost of basic medicines.
This wasn’t the only kicker — the document indicated Australian citizens would be subject to foreign copyright laws, potentially prosecuted or even jailed for downloading the latest episode of House of Cards, Game of Thrones or, heaven forbid, Downtown Abbey. As well as extending the power of US web surveillance, local internet providers would be forced to hand over private user information to foreign law enforcers, a draconian breach of present internet freedoms.
“Negotiators have been hush hush on the details, shielding it from media and the prying eyes of the public.”
Amidst the Abbott hoopla earlier this month, civil rights watchdog Getup launched a new public awareness campaign about the TPP, labelling it the “dirtiest deal you never knew existed”. Getup argue that the TPP will threaten Australian food standards, environmental protections, workers’ rights and, worst of all, give foreign multinationals the power to sue our government over any law or regulation change that impacts on their right to profit. The proof? It’s already happening.
In 2011, tobacco giant Phillip Morris took the Australian government to court for billions in compensation over their decision to implement plain packaging on cigarettes. They did this under a recourse called the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), a legal provision in an existing trade agreement between Australia and Hong Kong (and a feature of many bilateral trade deals today).
ISDS give corporations the right to demand taxpayer compensation for any government decision that impacts on their “expected future profits”. They can sue a government directly through a secret international tribunal, circumventing domestic legal process.
The Phillip Morris case is not alone. Canadian mining company Pacific Rim is suing the government of El Salvador for $300 million after it rescinded plans for a gold mine that threatened to poison local water supplies; in Canada, under NAFTA, shale gas organisation, Lone Pine sued the Quebec government for $250 million after it enacted a moratorium on fracking.
Critics view all this as an assault on democratic governance. Given ISDS will almost certainly be embedded in the final draft of the TPP, there is great concern that the deal will give rise to more corporate suits, potentially deterring governments from making important decisions and enacting crucial legislation that protects the environment and its citizens.
While American big business lobbyists are continuing to try and fast track the deal, representatives from both flanks of Congress have bandied together to demand more transparency and public debate. It’s worth noting that almost every sitting political representative of the 12 member states involved will have no access to the details of the agreement until the final draft — Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb thinks that isn’t too far away. By the time our Senate’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties comes together to review the draft, the content of the deal will already have been signed off by Cabinet (as well as the 600 faceless lobbyists representing the world’s largest multinational corporations who had full access to, and helped shape the deal).
The debate then is purely legislative: 20 days to decide how best to implement it into Australian law. Once passed, we’re locked in: more bucks for medicine and IT products, less internet freedoms, food standards compromised, environmental protections at risk, and the ability of our elected officials to govern responsibly sans corporate pressure to do otherwise — until many, many circuses after Big Tony’s final dance.