analysis A key player in Australia’s negotiations to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) revealed itself last Monday and surprisingly it wasn’t News Ltd, the US Embassy in Canberra or even a reigning political party. The Federal Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade emerged as ACTA’s cheerleader-in-chief in Australia, trumpeting the benefits of the treaty before a rare open federal parliamentary committee.
The proposed treaty has generated heat across the globe, from the streets of Poland to the parliament of Europe and Mexico, to the social media back-channels of ACTA’s primary driver, the United States of America.
ACTA imposes significant requirements on the 30 or so signatories should they ratify it (none are yet to do so), impacting far wider than the commonly discussed aspects of file-sharing and media piracy. ACTA brings generic medicines into play. To some extent it dictates how nations should deal with trademarks and patents. In the words of Australian Law Professor Dr Matthew Rimmer, ACTA “seeks to define and channel how nation-states enforce concepts of intellectual property.”
Australia’s lack of public and political opposition to ACTA stands somewhat alone in the international community, accentuated by limited local media coverage. The rare light shone on Australia’s role in negotiations during last week’s “Justice Standing Committee” hearing only came after the treaty had already been signed in October, 2011 – as was noted more than once by the handful of politicians present.
Senator Scott Ludlam, an outspoken supporter of Julian Assange and his Wikileaks organisation, seized the opportunity to grill the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade and other supporters of ACTA who presented themselves. If body language is anything to go by, the good senator was less than enthusiastic about the answers he received. Later in the week, a very different group of people gave evidence, drawn from the ranks of concerned members of Australia’s academic community. Their testimony was largely negative, attacking ACTA on multiple levels.
Human rights expert Dr Hazel Moir, of the Australian National University, pointed to the role copyright monopolies played in drafting the secretive treaty and questioned their motives. “The music industry has a very rigid business model. They’re only prepared to sell certain things at certain times,” Dr Moir testified.
Some of the harshest language came from Dr Matthew Rimmer, an intellectual property law expert, also from the ANU. Dr Rimmer took aim at the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade’s role in negotiating the treaty. “The Department [of Foreign Affairs & Trade] have been one of the chief advocates,” Dr Rimmer told TorrentFreak after giving evidence. “They’re conducting and running their own line on what should happen. I’m not sure that represents a wider government approach.”
Dr Rimmer questioned why other government departments had not been included in the treaty negotiations. “There was a need for Treasury, Finance and the Productivity Commission to be involved. I also think the Department of Health [& Ageing] have been ignored … their concerns have not been raised.”
Those concerns include the impact ACTA may have on Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme – a government program that provides subsidised drugs and medicines to the entire population. Bans on the use of generic medicines could see massive blow-outs in the cost of the scheme according to Dr Rimmer. “There’s many real problems with the one department having soul carriage [of ACTA] that have simply been ignored,” he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade has been led by no less than three ministers since ACTA negotiations began in 2008. None have shown a particular public interest in the treaty, preferring the rough and tumble of internal party politics and visits to Afghanistan and Washington. Australia’s ruling Labor Party and conservative opposition have a long standing history of combining their numbers to pass treaties and agreements driven by the US State Department – as ACTA is.
Australia’s role in negotiating ACTA has been near invisible, both locally and internationally. Transparency in the process has been non-existent. Mainstream media coverage has been negligible. Expert local voices have been ignored. Should Australia ratify ACTA, it will sign up to a treaty negotiated in secret by a single, questionably-lead government department with parliamentary hearings held after the fact and outcomes that could be felt across the legal and policy landscape of the nation.
Such a process runs counter-intuitive to how a modern liberal democracy operates.