news The Liberal chair of the Federal Parliamentary committee overseeing treaties has given a speech strongly praising the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership, pre-empting the formal inquiry processes through which the Parliament examines treaties.
Treaties signed or proposed to be signed by the Federal Government are usually examined in the Federal Parliament by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT), a group consisting of representatives from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The membership of the Committee is predominantly Coalition and Labor, with the sole crossbench member being Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson.
The Committee has not yet formally examined the TPP yet, although it has invited public comment on the treaty, and plans to hold its first public hearings on the TPP in about a week.
The TPP is a controversial trade agreement among twelve Pacific countries which reached agreement in early October last year after years of negotiations. The treaty is controversial because it forces countries such as Australia to adopt rules such as investor-state dispute mechanisms which can allow corporations to sue governments for taking certain actions, as well as introducing new intellectual property controls.
Digital rights activists globally have fought hard to block the TPP over the past seven years that it has been being negotiated. One of the last chance to do so appears to be in the United States, where the US Congress has yet to formally ratify the treaty and many MPs on both sides of the US Congress oppose it.
Despite the fact that JSCOT has yet to examine the TPP, the committee’s chair Angus Taylor — a Liberal MP who Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promoted to the digital transformation junior ministry over the weekend — told Federal Parliament last week he was a strong supporter.
“This is an agreement of absolutely unprecedented scope,” Taylor told the Parliament’s Federation Chamber, in a sparsely attended session.
“It will establish more seamless trade across 12 countries by setting commonly agreed rules and promoting transparency of law and regulations. It will provide greater certainty for businesses, reduce costs and red tape and facilitate participation in regional supply chains. It will also address contemporary trade challenges in ways that have not been addressed in Australian [Free Trade Agreements]. It will stand as a model for future agreements.”
According to Taylor, the TPP has a huge number of benefits for Australia — including “state of the art e-commerce provisions”; the elimination of tariffs in the way of Australian agricultural exports; opportunities for the Australian services sector (especially financial services) and more.
“The day we stop preaching the benefits of openness is the day our economy starts to focus inwards and starts to go backwards,” said Taylor. “The 12 countries that negotiated the TPP make up almost 40 per cent of the world’s GDP. This is a platform for Australia’s future prosperity.”
In earlier portions of his speech, Taylor praised the concept of free and open trade in general. The full text of the speech is available online in PDF format — starting at the bottom of page 95.
“We only have to look at our relatively short European history to understand how that openness has contributed to prosperity—since that first bale of wool. That first bale of wool left John Macarthur’s shearing shed, went to the port and was delivered to England. That was on the back of our first genuine trade agreement.
Taylor did acknowledge that JSCOT had yet to examine the TPP and that this process could turn up issues with the treaty.
“The process from here will include an inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties,” he said. “This will be important in looking at these all-important issues: the investor-state-dispute mechanism, labour conditions and treatment of intellectual property … it will be important for JSCOT to fully scrutinise those issues in its upcoming inquiry.”
However, the Liberal MP stopped short of signalling that the acceptance of the TPP could be dependent upon JSCOT’s approval as the key parliamentary vetting mechanism for treaties.
“I am confident that those issues have been given due consideration in the formulation of this agreement,” he said.
The Opposition has been broadly supportive of the TPP, and it was the Rudd/Gillard administrations who initiated and conducted much of the negotiation work on behalf of Australia in terms of participation in the TPP.
However, Labor has noted it has concerns about some aspects of the document, especially as they relate to workers’ rights, and some progressive Labor figures such as outgoing Fremantle MP Melissa Parke have expressed their strong opposition to it. Last week Parke tabled an anti-TPP petition in Federal Parliament with over 300,000 signatures.
The Greens have strongly criticised the TPP. Whish-Wilson in particular has vocally opposed the signing of the treaty. Last week the Greens Senator said Parliament needed to have a “proper independent assessment” of the TPP and that government should refer the entire agreement to the Productivity Commission for assessment.
Of course Taylor is pro-TPP — most Liberals are. This kind of free trade treaty is in the Liberal Party’s DNA, and it’s no surprise to find Liberal MPs out spruiking it, just as it’s no surprise to find Labor’s progressive elements and the Greens opposing it.
However, Taylor may also want to take somewhat of a more nuanced approach to his spruiking from here on in. It is simply not good form — no matter what your political persuasion — to admit that you have a pre-formed strong view on any given issue, when you are in charge of chairing a committee inquiring into that issue.
It would behoove Taylor well to at least provide the public with a fig leaf to show that he is open to being convinced with regard to the TPP’s fitness for Australia. Otherwise, he can easily be accused of being strongly biased towards the agreement during the upcoming series of hearings on it. Allowing himself to be too easily compromised will weaken the Coalition’s argument that an already suspicious Australian public should just lie down and accept the TPP.
There are many Australians (myself included) who believe the TPP is broadly a bad thing for the country and will lead to many negative outcomes, as well as delivering few positive outcomes. Seeing openly biased Liberal MPs chairing committees investigating the TPP will not help with that impression.