After years of secret negotiations, WikiLeaks recently shone a light on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), the proposed regional trade deal between Pacific Rim countries, including Australia, which if it goes ahead could establish a US-style regional regulatory framework that meets the demands of its major export industries, including pharmaceutical and digital, but costs Australia dearly.
The draft chapter on intellectual property rights, revealed by WikiLeaks, included a “Christmas wishlist” for pharmaceutical companies, including the proposal to extend patent protection and strengthen monopolies on clinical data. As part of the deal, the US is reportedly seeking patents for “new forms” of known substances, as well as on new uses on old medicines – a proposal which would lead to “evergreening”, whereby patents can be renewed continuously.
It’s a huge risk to Australia’s world class public health system, which risks cost blowouts via reduced access to cheaper generic drugs and reduced rights for the government to regulate medicine prices. It also risks stifling innovation in the event that patent terms are extended too far.
The US is also seeking to insert an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause into the agreement, which could give authority to major corporations to challenge laws made by governments in the national interest in international courts of arbitration. So effectively, US companies would be allowed to sue the Australian Government under international law – a move that is being pursued by Philip Morris against Australia on plain packaging and graphic warnings for cigarettes.
The draft agreement also sought to place more restrictions on internet users by forcing ISPs to cooperate with copyright holders and terminating the accounts of repeat infringers. This is despite the High Court of Australia ruling that an ISPs inaction could not be taken as authorisation of a copyright infringement.
Finally, the US is opposing a proposal that would allow the circumvention of technology that restricts products to certain regions, even though this was recommended by the Australian parliament’s Inquiry into IT Pricing, as well as opposing the parallel importation of goods made under authorisation in other countries, which acts to maintain higher prices.
With these concerns in mind, it is disturbing that the Federal Minister for Trade, Andrew Robb, is considering ceding to the Americans in a bid to gain better access for Australian agriculture (areas omitted in the Australia-US FTA):
Australia is prepared to give ground on investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) powers – which allow multinational companies to sue the government – in return for “substantial market access” in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the trade minister, Andrew Robb, said.
Robb predicted the TPP would be a “platform for 21st-century trade rules” as negotiations were being watched closely by other countries but “ambitious market access” was fundamental to its successful completion.
Speaking at the conclusion of the latest round of talks, Robb confirmed he was negotiating on the controversial ISDS clause in return for market access for Australian exporters and that “substantial progress” had been made on the issue…
As a bare minimum, the text of the TPP (and other trade agreements) should be released for public and parliamentary scrutiny before they are signed. Otherwise, Australia risks being sold-out for short-term politically gain rather than sound long-term decisions