news Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson has labelled the democratic process around the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty as being a “farce”, with the Government having failed to conduct a detailed public interest analysis into the treaty, and Federal Parliament blocked from modifying the agreement at all.
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.
Australia’s Federal Parliament does not have the power to modify the TPP, as it has already been signed by former Trade Minister Andrew Robb, although it does have the power to vote on legislation which may change Australian law to reflect the TPP’s requirements.
Speaking in the Senate yesterday, Whish-Wilson said it had been six years since negotiation on the TPP started.
“Six years of secret meetings behind closed doors, between negotiators and special interests; six years that the public have been kept in the dark about an agreement that is going to impact just about every aspect of our life, our society and our economy,” the Greens Senator said.
The Government confirmed yesterday that it would not ask the Productivity Commission to conduct an independent analysis of the TPP. Instead, it has tabled in Parliament a brief ‘national interest’ document pertaining to the treaty.
As Trade Minister, Robb said the TPP would see the elimination of 98 percent of tariffs amongst the 12 countries which signed the treaty. saying it would bring “enormous promise” across both traditional areas of trade and investment, and growing industries such as ecommerce.
“The tariff cuts will deliver material gains for our exporters across the board and place downward pressure on the cost of imported goods for households and businesses, but the benefits that will flow from the creation of a more seamless trading environment are not well understood,” he said.
However, Whish-Wilson said the national interest analysis tabled in Parliament by Robb was “a total farce” — having “been written by the same people who negotiated the deal on behalf of the Government.
Independent analysis by the World Bank purports to show that Australia will gain little from the signing of the TPP.
“The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is a document that cannot be changed, cannot be altered. There are 31 chapters of this document—from labour standards through to environmental conditions, through to local procurement, through to monopoly rights and intellectual property, through the investment chapter—we cannot change a single thing in this agreement. It is signed and sealed,” Whish-Wilson told the Senate. “The process we go through now is a total joke, a farce.”
The TPP will now be examined by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. However, Whish-Wilson said he had no confidence in this process, as the TPP itself had already been signed and could not be changed.
“In parliament in a democracy, when legislation comes to parliament, especially the Senate—a house of review—we get to debate that legislation,” the Greens Senator said. “We get to amend it and put up amendments knowing that if we get support from other members of the chamber, we can change that legislation and the law. We can improve it, which is what a democracy is all about, bringing in all stakeholders in this country, not just big business, who helped negotiate this deal, but all stakeholders.”
“But under the treaty process that we have now, we cannot change a thing. It is locked in, signed and sealed.”
Whish-Wilson said that effectively, the TPP was a “trojan horse for circumventing the democratic parliamentary process in this country”.
“… the special interests that originated this deal, manufactured it and has driven it relentlessly for six years do not want this to come to the Australian people. They do not want it to be voted on by the parliament,” he said.
“DFAT and Mr Andrew Robb have marked their own homework and give themselves top marks, although the World Bank and other independent economic forecasters have said there will be virtually no benefit to Australia and very little benefit to the US.”
“Yet this is trumpeted as the best thing since sliced bread—rivers of gold for our country. What it actually does is enclose risks that we as parliamentarians are going to have to face and, if we do not fix it, that our children’s generation, when they come to parliament, are going to have to face.”
As a capitalist myself, I am usually in favour of open markets and removing barriers to market competition. In my opinion, economies function better when governments get out of the way of the flow of goods and services and let companies and even whole countries specialise and become more efficient at producing whatever they specialise in.
However, from what evidence I have seen, the signing of the TPP does not enable much of this sort of behaviour for Australia — we already have access to most of the markets that we want, and on pretty good terms.
Instead, the agreement appears to force a number of draconian provisions on Australia that may undermine our democracy and the laws we have voted for locally.
I regard it is simply obscene that Australia’s Federal Parliament — our chief democratic organ — has not been allowed to examine and have input into the TPP process, and that key accountability mechanisms such as the Senate have been cut out of this process entirely. I regard this as an abuse of the Commonwealth’s powers under the Constitution to work with foreign powers.
And yet, at this point, I am not really sure what can be done about this situation. As Whish-Wilson points out, there is little the Parliament can do, and the TPP is obscure enough that the Australian public is probably not going to get that interested in protesting against it.
I guess we’ll find out down the track if the treaty really will have the awful impact on Australian society that Whish-Wilson and certain progressive elements within the Labor Party believe it will.