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Issue #1628      February 26, 2014

Trans-Pacific Partnership

“Strangling democracy”

The Australian government never hesitates in preaching the values of Western democracy and how Australia is an outstanding example. We regularly elect governments in “free and fair” elections and our Westminster-style parliamentary system is relatively open to scrutiny.

Australia’s parliamentary system has many shortcomings, but at least legislation is usually public before it is passed and trade unions, consumer, environmental, health, education, and other groups and individuals have an opportunity to express their views and to lobby and campaign for changes. If enough pressure is mounted, it is not unknown for a government to back down.

But even these limited democratic rights are being denied during the negotiations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This so-called “architecture for a 21st century trade agreement” is designed to serve US corporate and strategic interests and to act as a model for future agreements.

The present round of negotiations (17th) is taking place in Singapore where Australia, New Zealand, the US, Peru, Chile, Mexico, Canada, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Japan are still battling it out over the specific provisions. Although “battling it out” is not the right term to use when it comes to Australia’s sycophantic subservience to the US and its corporations.

Shrouded in secrecy

The big corporations are at the table, being consulted on every move but the public are being kept in the dark. If it were not for WikiLeaks and Fairfax media in Australia, we would still have little idea of how the Australian government is signing away our democratic and sovereign rights.

The Senate has called on the government to release details but it has flatly refused, treating this democratically elected, representative body with total contempt.

Cabinet will decide whether to sign. Only after it is signed, will the government reveal the text! (See article this issue “Australian Parliamentary process for trade agreements” for ratification process.)

Trade and Industry Minister Andrew Robb heads Australia’s negotiating team. Addressing an Asialink function in Canberra last year, Robb said that making the government’s position public would be a way to “make sure we get done in the eye”.

That is not to suggest that Robb has not done any consulting about the TPP’s details. “Look, we’ve had over 700 briefings with any party that we think has got a vital interest in the agreement because the only way we can negotiate something that’s relevant and acceptable to the community in Australia is to know how any particular proposition by other parties in other countries would affect them,” Robb told Linda Mottram on ABC 702 on February 17.

By “community” he means the business community, not the people who will be on the receiving end of the TPP.

“So there’s quite an endless sort of briefing process that goes on. And every time there’s a new nuance introduced to the negotiation, our – my officials will go back to all these parties involved … the last time we had several days for negotiation, I think there were representatives of nearly every agricultural industry, … and every day we had meetings, I met with them and gave them updates and quizzed them on things that may or may not be acceptable,” Robb explained.

“It’s just that we’re not releasing text but we are discussing these things endlessly with stakeholders and in the end they’re the ones who – they represent their industries and they know what’s in the interests of those industries …”

That is just the point; the government is looking after big business but not the people. He omits to mention that the US corporations, in particular, are driving the agenda – Big Pharma, big financial institutions, mining corporations, etc.

Anyone who might oppose what the government is doing is kept in the dark in case they lobby or protest. “And in many ways, a lot of those that are opposed and are using the PBS and other things that people understand, they’ve got an anti-trade agenda. Now, they’re entitled to that, but we disagree with it. We think trade is critical to building sustainable jobs in Australia to make sure that we grow as a country.”

No one is opposed to trade. What people want is fair trade. The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET), one of the main forces representing the interests of Australian people and the Australian economy, is promoting fair trade. In no way is it “anti-trade.”

But it is dishonest to keep referring to it as if it were just about trade. The TPP is much more than a trade agreement. It is these other aspects that the government is particularly concerned to hide.

Robb brushes aside the major stakeholders in the TPP, the Australian people who stand to lose a great deal if it goes ahead.

If given a voice they might even attempt to protect the Australian economy, food standards, local film industry, jobs, wages and the planet! Obviously that would be too much for a government that lectures to the rest of the world on democracy.

Not just a trade agreement

The TPP might be referred to as a trade agreement, but only about five of the 26 chapters that were leaked are about trade. The remainder go to the heart of the powers and role of government, in particular, they seek to override the government’s sovereign powers and responsibility to legislate in the interests of its people, its economy and environment.

The government’s capacity to act or likelihood of not acting because of fear of being sued for hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars covers almost every aspect of life. Government authority could be challenged over such things as:

  • price of prescriptions
  • environmental protection
  • workers’ rights
  • local content on TV
  • foreign investment rules
  • food and tobacco labelling
  • coal seam gas mining
  • financial regulation
  • internet privacy
  • environmental protection
  • government procurement, and much more.

The government claims it is committed to protecting the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and Australia’s interests. But how do we know? Its promises mean nothing, especially when it so fears the reaction to its actions that it treats them as top secret.

One of the most dangerous, amongst many, policies on the table is the investor-state disputes settlement (ISDS) provision, which the Abbott government is supporting. Labor had held back on this, despite the US’s insistence it should be in the final agreement.

ISDS gives foreign corporations the power to sue the Australian government for potential (what they might miss out on), not actual, losses in profits resulting from government legislation or policy relating to health, environmental and other policies.

Cases under the ISDS will not be heard by an Australian court but by international tribunals whose decisions override Australian courts.

The Democracy Centre has called such international arbitration “a privatised justice system for global corporations”.

“Decisions in these closed door tribunals are made by three investment lawyers working on a for-profit basis with no obligation to balance the public interest with the profit-making interest of corporations,” Thomas Mc Donagh explains, in an article published by the Democracy Centre. (http://democracyctr.org “Getting Action: Strangling Democracy”, 26-11-2013)

“Governments, meanwhile, have no corresponding right to bring legal action against corporations in these arbitration tribunals when they breach national environmental regulations or human rights laws. It’s all one-way traffic,” Mc Donagh warns.

“The conflict of interest between corporations hard wired to maximise profit – even if it comes at the cost of our fresh water sources, our public health laws and our basic services – and policy making designed to serve the public interest is nowhere more apparent than in these arbitration cases. The means of mediating this conflict of interest and blocking unbridled profit-making is the democratic process.

“The TPP leaks make it ever clearer, however, that [free] trade agreements are the mechanisms that corporations are now using to thwart democracy and to undermine the ability for us to pressure our governments to take action on a range of urgent public issues,” Mc Donagh said.

For more info, http://democracyctr.org, report titled “Unfair, Unsustainable, and Under the Radar”; www.aftinet.org.au

Next article – Govt offensive on public sector wages and conditions

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