I have warned repeatedly about the risks posed to Australia’s sovereignty and consumer welfare from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – the proposed regional trade deal between 12 Pacific Rim countries, including Australia.
If the TPP goes ahead, it will establish a US-style regional regulatory framework that meets the demands of major US export industries, including pharmaceutical and digital.
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.
The pact poses a huge risk to Australia’s world class public health system, which faces 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. 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 US is also 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 – both of which would act to maintain higher prices (to the detriment of Australian consumers).
Australia’s Trade Minister, Andrew Robb, has signaled Australia’s support for the TPP provided Australia gains significant access to agricultural markets, labeling the agreement as a “platform for 21st-century trade rules”.
Yet, warnings about the deleterious implications of the TPP have been voiced across the globe.
Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, recently posted an open letter questioning negotiators’ secrecy and warning about “grave risks on all sorts of topics” posed by the TPP, as well as claiming that it contains “many of the worst features of the worst laws in the TPP countries, making needed reforms extremely difficult if not impossible”.
And now, the New York Times has reported that the US Congress and trade experts are alarmed at the secrecy surrounding the TPP and the manner in which the deal has been hijacked by US pharmaceutical and digital interests, risking dangerous outcomes:
Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle have voiced anger over their limited access to negotiation proceedings…
“The majority of Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of U.S. corporations – like Halliburton, Chevron, PHRMA, Comcast, and the Motion Picture Association of America – are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement. As the Office of the USTR [U.S. Trade Representative] will tell you, the President gives it broad power to keep information about the trade policies it advances and negotiates secret. Let me tell you, the USTR is making full use of this authority.”
That same month, Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, unilaterally released what had been the administration’s secret position on intellectual property rights, one of the most contentious subjects under negotiation. Issa wrote:
“At a time when the American people and Internet users all around the world are rightfully wary of any closed-door negotiations that could adversely impact their ability to freely and openly access the Internet, the Obama Administration continues to pursue a secretive, closed-door negotiating process for the Trans Pacific Partnership…
[International Trade expert, Jagdish] Bhagwati described the procedures governing the TPP negotiations as “ludicrous,” noting that the secrecy surrounding the talks makes it difficult for the administration to win critically important congressional approval of voting on the TPP under special (“fast track”) rules barring any amendments or filibusters…
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading nonprofit advocate of open access on the Internet, argues that under a cloak of secrecy, the TPP …”puts at risk some of the most fundamental rights that enable access to knowledge for the world’s citizens”…
Oregon senator sent an email response to my inquiry:
“Right now, because of the shroud of secrecy, it is impossible for the public to be informed of what’s at stake in potential trade deals like the TPP. This secrecy and lack of informed public input makes it difficult for Congress to oversee and direct trade negotiations”…
These agreements go well beyond traditional market access issues of tariffs and quotas to become de facto industrial policies…
[The TPP] reflects a larger shift in the balance of power. As multinational or “stateless” capital diminishes the sovereignty of individual countries, including the United States, and strengthens the autonomy of international corporations, it weakens the already fragile economic security of millions of out-of-work Americans. Their plight appears to be unheeded in the world of “advisory committees.” One can only fear what comes next.
Clearly, the whole process surrounding the TPP is overly opaque. As a bare minimum, the text of the TPP should be released for public and parliamentary scrutiny before it is ratified.