Right now, a handful of people regularly meet to discuss an issue with huge ramifications for our nation, internally and worldwide. When it comes down to it, these people have more power to change our day-to-day lives than almost anyone else in the country.
Their job involves determining the future of affordable healthcare in Australia, critical choices about our internet freedoms and determining how we protect our environment for future generations.
You’d expect such an influential group of people to be greeted with some fanfare. But this group want just the opposite: they’re the negotiating team for Australia in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a huge trade deal with eleven other countries that touches on everything from cattle-farming to pharmaceuticals.
They want to reassure us that we don’t need to worry about spiralling drug costs or curtailed internet freedom, but they’re not willing to let us see the text of the deal to back up their claims.
For the negotiators, keeping a low profile is an essential part of doing business. So far, meetings with “stakeholders” are some of the most “public” engagement DFAT has agreed to during the trade talks, and attendance will be tightly controlled.
It’s not that surprising that unelected officials in the negotiating team don’t want to be put under the microscope when it comes to the TPP - it’s not really part of their job description. But their political bosses - Tony Abbott and Andrew Robb - don’t seem to have much to say on the specifics of the deal either. They want to reassure us that we don’t need to worry about spiralling drug costs or curtailed internet freedom, but they’re not willing to let us see the text of the deal to back up their claims. Indeed, the only way the public have been given opportunity to see the detail of the TPP is due to successive leaks of draft chapters, most notably those published by Wikileaks in November last year.
There are some exceptions to the secrecy that surrounds the deal, however. Corporate lobbyists have had privileged access to the negotiations throughout, with some estimating the involvement of around 6,000 US lobbyists. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent since before negotiations even formally began by huge companies trying to ensure they got the best possible deal for maximising their profits.
Corporations also stand to gain from another controversial part of the deal: investor state dispute settlement (ISDS). ISDS makes it possible for companies to sue governments if they introduce regulations that may diminish companies’ profits under the terms of the trade deal. Cases are heard outside national courts in tribunals closed to the public. Philip Morris, the tobacco giant, used an ISDS provision in another trade deal to sue the Uruguayan national government when they tried to regulate tobacco sales and advertising. Philip Morris could attempt a similar challenge against Australia’s recent adoption of plain packaging on cigarettes. Dow Chemicals did the same to fight the Canadian government attempts to restrict use of a pesticide they thought might be hazardous.
Opposition and concern about the deal isn’t in short supply. Already, Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson has asked people to take part in a consultation he’s launching to find out more about where ordinary Australians stand on ISDS. The Australian Labor Party have equivocated when it comes to supporting or opposing the deal. AFTINET, a coalition of campaigning groups and trade unions, have opposed the deal for years. Health advocates such as the Public Health Association of Australia and consumer group CHOICE have been widely critical of the impact on Australian customers. We’ve even seen opposition to the deal from Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organisation who has labelled the TPPA as the ‘last big old-style trade agreement.’
This is not an ideological battle - the secrecy surrounding this deal masks some very real concerns with real-world impacts. Suggested changes to copyright laws will give more power to multinational media organisations, allowing Hollywood studios to demand personal information of suspected copyright infringers, without requiring evidence or probable cause. The elimination of important trade barriers could jeopardise transparent labelling of food products, including palm oil – an industry responsible for widespread deforestation of virgin rainforest. Pharmaceutical patents would be expanded way beyond their current lifespan, protecting drug company monopolies and blocking the distribution of cheaper generic versions of medication from ever reaching the marketplace.
As the public learns more about this secretive deal, dissention and opposition are rising. Nearly 100,000 have already signed a petition demanding that Tony Abbott stand up for Australian democracy and walk away from the deal completely. Such a substantive international trade deal deserves at very least the transparency of open, democratic government process, not meetings hidden deep with government bureaucracy.
Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman is the Executive Director and Founder of Sum of Us.