Secret trade deal threatens democracy

March 9, 2012
Occupy Melbourne activists protested against international negotiations for the TPPA in Melbourne over March 1 to 9. Photo: Occu

A “free trade agreement” being negotiated by Australia, the United States and other countries could have profound impacts on crucial public policy issues including food security, natural resource management, access to essential medicines, public assets and more.

Negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) – including Australia, the US, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam – are taking place in unprecedented secrecy.

Since the early 2000s, regional and bilateral “Free Trade Agreements” (FTA) have been the order of the day. Negotiations are always weighted in favour of the dominant players: powerful US corporations.

They have traditionally imposed the “template” of the dominant over the weaker players, and targeted a far broader range of areas in government policy and regulation than the World Trade Organisation.

The 2008 collapse of the WTO’s “Doha Development Round” added impetus to the rollout of such agreements.

The US has indicated the TPPA may go further, and reach deeper into member states’ domestic policy and regulation functions, than any previous FTA.

Hard-fought-for scraps of regulatory sovereignty rescued from the clutches of previous “free trade agreements” are again on the table.

Unprecedented secrecy

An October 2011 TPPA document leak revealed disturbing secrecy requirements for participants.

Prominent New Zealand “globalisation” critic and University of Auckland law Professor Jane Kelsey said in a press release, “The parties have apparently agreed that all documents except the final text will be kept secret for four years after the agreement comes into force or the negotiations collapse.

“This reverses the trend in many recent negotiations to release draft texts and related documents. The existence of [the] agreement was only discovered through a cover note to the leaked text of the intellectual property chapter.”

This means that the impacts of the TPPA will be felt by people in affected countries for up to four years before their justifications are known.

Access to medicine

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said last September that “the U.S. position represents a major retreat from previous U.S. commitments to global health, including the 2007 bipartisan New Trade Policy, in which Congress and the Bush administration agreed to abide by important public health safeguards in future trade agreements”.

It cites a leaked 2010 cover page of the draft TPPA Intellectual Property Rights Chapter as evidence that “the U.S. is demanding aggressive intellectual property provisions that go beyond what international trade law requires”.

The 1995 Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) put pressure on access to lifesaving medicines such as HIV treatments. The WTO 2001 Doha Declaration on TRIPS and Public Health was signed to affirm “WTO members' right to protect public health and, in particular, to promote access to medicines for all”. This was again affirmed in 2008.

Studies since have shown the impact of “TRIP Plus” – bilateral and regional Free Trade Agreements that raised costs and undermined access to vital medicines, particularly in poorer countries.

MSF said the US demands for the TPPA negotiations “threaten to roll back vitally important public health safeguards in developing countries”.

US pharmaceutical and tobacco giants want more intellectual property rights, so they can charge higher prices for longer than existing patent expiry, as well as restricting governments’ ability to provide affordable medicines under schemes such as Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

The TPPA could also prevent governments from breaking pharmaceutical patents in a public health emergency such as a disease outbreak.

Corporations sue governments

Under the TPPA, US corporations are seeking the inclusion of an “investor-state provision”, which would allow corporations to sue domestic governments if they disagree with public policy, for example public health or environmental regulations.

This happened when tobacco giant Phillip Morris took the Uruguayan government to arbitration in 2010 seeking not only compensation, but suspension of new government regulations for warning labels on cigarette packets and removal of misleading categories of “mild”, “extra-mild” and so on.

The company took action on the basis of Uruguay’s FTA with Switzerland, where it held its operations centre.

The Australian government recently implemented almost identical regulations, as well as seeking to introduce plain cigarette packaging laws.

Local content in film and TV

Australia has historically legislated required amounts of locally-produced content in broadcast television and other media, however such laws were significantly weakened after the Australia United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) came into effect in January 2005.

In August last year, Screen Australia reported that foreign content on Australian television had risen 154% since 2008. Australian content only rose 54% in the same period.

In their TPPA submissions, US industry groups have targeted the remaining local content laws as “trade barriers”.

Internet freedom

This could be the year for the corporate war on internet freedom, and the TPPA is the next battlefront.

By January this year, 31 countries had signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), a multinational intellectual property treaty targeting counterfeit goods, generic medicines and internet copyright infringement.

ACTA will come into legal force once ratified by six countries, and is the subject of a global grassroots campaign against it, alongside campaigns against the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA).

US corporations are now seeking to use the TPPA negotiations as another platform to criminalise access to copyrighted material and enforce prosecution by domestic governments, and to make internet service providers criminally liable for copyright piracy through their networks.

Corporatisation of economies

US submissions to the negotiations also indicate a plan to pressure member countries into restructuring their economies more like “model” economies such as Australia and New Zealand by corporatising the public sector.

Following the 1993 Hillmer Review of National Competition Policy, Australia rolled out the policy of “competitive neutrality” to promote efficient competition between public and private businesses and “to ensure that government businesses do not enjoy competitive advantages over their private sector competitors simply by virtue of their public sector ownership”, as described by the Productivity Commission.

Professor Jane Kelsey said: “In practice, this requires the fundamental restructuring of government agencies that have a combination of functions … that are or could be made commercial.”

The model requires the separation of functions into commercial and non-commercial, and paves the way for privatisation.

The result in Australia has been the sell-off of retail and other sections of public utilities, and the subsequent scandals and decline in services to the community.

It also means socially vital services won't be carried out if they are not profitable. Crippling public transport crises are an example of this.

This is the “best practice” model likely to be pushed on member states via the TPPA.

In AUSFTA negotiations, the US targeted environmental protection regulations, labelling of genetically engineered food, and rules for local media content and jobs in government purchasing. All these and more are again on the table under the TPPA negotiations.

Indications are that the TPPA is also part of an aggressive US economic and military strategy for hegemony in Asia, and a belligerent approach to containing China’s growing economic power around the world.

Some public protest and lobbying efforts have arisen against the TPPA, but the extraordinary secrecy of the negotiations appears to be aimed squarely at stifling dissent.

Civil society organisations are lobbying for the release of the full text to public scrutiny. A better demand, that must be taken to the streets, is for the scrapping of the TPPA altogether, along with all trade agreements with the predatory US and its vicious corporations.

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