Australians still in dark after TPP deal consultations

After consultations, many groups are still in the dark about Australia's hand in the secret TPP free trade deals. (Getty)
After consultations, many groups are still in the dark about Australia's hand in the secret TPP free trade deals. (Getty)

The Australian government says it has addressed transparency around the TPP free trade deal by consulting hundreds of groups. But how do those consultations stack up?

Many Australians say they are not better informed after consulting with government about Australia's hand in the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deals.

The TPP is a free trade deal between Australia, the US and 10 other countries. In 2013, those 12 countries represented more than a third of the global economy.

The deal's details must remain confidential, the government has repeatedly said, while a range of community groups have raised concerns about transparency.

When SBS asked about transparency, the government said it had consulted with hundreds of groups and stakeholders.

SBS contacted about 15 of those groups to ask how transparent those consultations were, and if groups were optimistic or concerned following the talks.

Business and trade groups have been optimistic about liberalisation of trade and said Australian companies might benefit from increased protections overseas.

Others have concerns about the legal implications in the secret text.

A leaked draft document on WikiLeaks was more informative than the consultations with government, three out of 11 groups said, though they were not asked.

Responses posted alphabetically.


Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry

Bryan Clark, director of international affairs and trade

Whether the TPP would help Australia or not was unknown, since the text has not been published, Mr Clark said.

“We’re supportive of the government’s efforts to liberalise trade and investment around the world,” he stated.

“They have an open door to groups like us.

“What we don’t see is we can’t tell what’s physically being negotiated.

“And we don’t know what’s being traded off.”

The deals need to go beyond the free trade deals Australia already has, Mr Clark said.

“The other area we’re concerned about is what’s called the noodle bowl.”

Agreements on top of agreements, like a noodle bowl, could sometimes be confusing, Mr Clark said.

He said if the TPP was a series of bilateral agreements with the US, then that would not be a good outcome.


Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU)

Ged Kearney, president

Australian Unions are concerned about the way TPP negotiations have been carried out, Mr Kearney said.

“The ACTU has a number of genuine concerns about the TPP, including investor-state dispute provisions, access to affordable medicines, restrictions on governments introducing public policy and lack of transparency,” he said.

The government said it had consulted with the ACTU on 12 separate occasions, formally and informally, between 2011 and 2014.

However, the government had not adequately consulted with the ACTU since September, despite letters and correspondence, Mr Kearney said.

“Australian Unions are not opposed to trade agreements but the outcomes must be balanced, support job creation, protect the rights and interest of working people and promote a healthy environment,” Mr Kearney said.

“We do not have confidence that these principles are currently being upheld under the TPP.”


Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET)

Doctor Patricia Ranald, coordinator

The consultations AFTINET had with Australia’s negotiators were one-sided, Dr Ranald said.

While AFTINET were able to express their concerns, the negotiators present in the consultations were unable to reveal any detail about the secret text.

“There’s limitations on the kind of talking they do,” Dr Ranald said.

“With trade agreements the details really matter.

“You would get to a point where the negotiators would say, ‘we can’t go into that detail'.”

The leaked draft document on the WikiLeaks website was more revealing, she said.

Dr Ranald said the negotiators seemed to have gone “underground” lately.

AFTINET is worried about a range of issues, including the government not revealing the text until the 12 nations have agreed on final terms.


Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC)

Emailed SBS a brief statement

The Australian Food and Grocery Council has been engaged with a range of parties on the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, a spokesperson said.

“The AFGC supports the aims of the TPP to eliminate tariffs and other barriers which will ultimately support international trade throughout the Asia Pacific,” the spokesperson said.


Australian Services Roundtable (ASR)

Ian Birks, chief executive

Their ASR's consultations have pointed to good outcomes for Australia, since the TPP would include deals with nations Australia does not currently have deals with, Mr Birks said.

The meeting with government was transparent and useful, he said.

“Through our lens, we are optimistic about the TPP outcomes,” Mr Birks said.

He said the danger with free trade agreements involving the US is they are strong in negotiations and are sometimes unwilling to compromise on their positions.

However, the US does not seem to be dominating the deals, judging by the consultations the ASR has had, Mr Birks said.


Export Council of Australia (ECA)

Andrew Hudson, director (one of several)

The agreed TPP texts were likely to contain an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), Mr Hudson said.

An ISDS is a legal framework that allows corporations to challenge changes in legislation.

A tobacco company challenged Australia’s plain packaging laws via an ISDS clause, and the challenge is ongoing.

The government has pointed out the trade deal in that challenge was old and lacked protections that would be in the TPP.

Mr Hudson said the inclusion of an ISDS clause could help Australian corporations in their dealings overseas.

“I anticipate we probably will ,” Mr Hudson said.

However, there would likely be limitations around what foreign corporations could challenge Australia for, he said.

Mr Hudson was happy with the government’s approach.

“There’s a normal convention with these that doesn’t get released,” Mr Hudson said.

“People often won’t negotiate if all the words of drafts go out there.

“There’s some good reasons for optimism here.”


Generic Medicines Industry Association (GMiA)

Belinda Wood, chief executive

Consultations about the TPP have been transparent and GMiA’s questions have largely been answered, Ms Wood said.

However, GMiA is concerned about what could be in the TPP text.

“Specifically relating to generic medicines and data exclusivity,” Ms Wood said.

She said in Australia, companies have a period of five years when they have exclusive access to the data generated from the use of their patented product.

GMiA believes the US wants to extend that data exclusivity period to 12 years.

Without the data, generic medicines cannot be produced.

“It’s going to further delay the market access for generic medicines,” Ms Wood said.

“You won’t see increases in existing medicine prices, you just won’t see any savings from competition.”


Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance (MEAA)

Chris Warren, chief executive

The MEAA is concerned the US is trying to boost its own cultural exports, like television programs, by watering down local cultural legislation in other countries, including Australia's.

Australia has requirements for how much local content must appear on Australian television.

Despite having consulted with government, the MEAA does not know what the TPP may contain but has concerns about what might be in the deals.

"We have no more idea... than anyone else who's read WikiLeaks," Mr Warren said.

Culture should not be part of any free trade agreement, but should be dealt with separately, he said.

However, it's unknown whether there is any protection for Australia's local content in the agreement.


Medicines Australia (MA)

Tim James, chief executive

The greater access to markets for Australian pharmaceuticals would be great for Australia's pharmaceutical exports, which were Australia's largest manufactured export, Mr James said.

" could help transform Australia into a leading global hub for manufacturing a new generation of highly-specialised medicines and vaccines," he said.

However, data exclusivity (see GMiA explanation above) in the TPP would cost Australians more, he said.

"This may be related to what we understand to be confidential modelling by the Australian Department of Health showing that extending data exclusivity could cost the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars each year," Mr James said.

MA's requests to access that modelling have been rejected, while the TPP draft text remains secret.

"Continued secrecy surrounding the TPP means that there is virtually no opportunity to analyse and interrogate the information the Government may be relying on to make critical decisions," Mr James said.

He said the government's positions on issues were also hidden, and more information has come from leaked details and media speculation.


National Farmers' Federation 

Tony Mahar, deputy chief executive

The trade deal was crucial for Australia’s agricultural sector, Mr Mahar said.

The TPP would open markets around the world for Australian farmers, Mr Mahar said.

"The result is less barriers and improved opportunities to get Australian products in the hands of foreign consumers so that will have a beneficial impact for Australian farmers.”

The TPP would make new markets accessible to Australia producers, he said.

"It’s a complex negotiation, especially when you have 12 or so countries dealing with sensitive issues so it is always a challenge."


Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA)

Michael Moore, chief executive

Consultations with government had been as transparent as they could be, without seeing any text, Mr Moore said.

The draft text published on WikiLeaks was the PHAA's first real insight into what is in the TPP.

“That’s just not good enough,” Mr Moore said.

He said the government representatives had its hands tied while consulting the PHAA.

“We feel that without the draft of the agreement we can never respond appropriately,” Mr Moore said.

“Our discussions in broad principal have been fine."

The PHAA is concerned about an ISDS in the TPP.

An ISDS in the TPP, without exemptions for public health, could prevent governments from making decisions in the best interests of Australians, he said.

“We don’t know if there’ll be a broad public health exemption,” Mr Moore said.

Sometimes the threat of legal action from corporations was enough to scare government from making legislative changes, he said.


Universities Australia, Screen Australia, Law Council of Australia declined to comment, and several other groups could not be reached.

Source: SBS