What is Andrew Robb trying to hide?


By Leith van Onselen

The Greens have slammed Trade Minister for attempting to force the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through parliament without a thorough independent examination. From The Canberra Times:

Mr Robb tabled the text of the TPP in Parliament on Tuesday, warning opponents of the deal that Australia had to sign it…

Following protocol, Mr Robb tabled a National Interest Analysis of the trade agreement, along with the agreement itself, which explained why the deal was in Australia’s interest… it was written by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Opponents of the deal have repeatedly asked the government to submit it to an independent analysis before signing it into law…

Greens spokesman for trade, Peter Whish-Wilson, has slammed the national interest analysis as a “farce”.

“[It] is not an independent assessment of the costs and benefits of this agreement, it is simply a more detailed set of talking points coming from DFAT and Andrew Robb’s office,” Mr Whish-Wilson said.

“Unsurprisingly DFAT and Andrew Robb have marked their own homework and given themselves top marks.

“If [he] wasn’t so afraid of his spin being shown up as hollow rhetoric then he would have no problem whatsoever referring the TPP to the Productivity Commission,” he said.

Too right. If Mr Robb is so certain that the TPP is a good deal for Australia, why is he against having it reviewed by the Productivity Commission (PC)? The PC is, after all, the Government’s key analyst on economic policy matters, so why not use them?

As I noted last week, the TPP is an incredibly complex agreement whose text numbers some 6,000 pages and 30 chapters. It is far too complex for the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT) to comprehensively review. Therefore, the PC’s expert assessment is vital.


It’s not like time is an issue, either, given member nations have two years to ratify the agreement.

The truth is that Coalition is against referring the TPP to the PC because it risks uncovering any gremlins lurking in the text. The PC could also determine that the TPP is, in fact, detrimental to Australia’s interest – as modelling by the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University has done, which found that employment in Australia would contract by 39,000 jobs.

We have seen this story before.


While working as the Australian Treasury’s trade analyst in 2003-04, I witnessed the Howard Government commission the Centre for International Economics (CIE) to undertake the modelling on the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), even though the PC was available and wanted the job.

It was the belief of many at the time that the CIE was chosen over the PC because it would provide more favourable modelling results, making it easier for the Government to sell the deal to the public. By contrast, the PC was inherently skeptical of preferential trade agreements (for good reason), and it was feared that it would provide a poor assessment of the AUSFTA if commissioned to undertake the work.

Alas, the CIE delivered a glowing report on the AUSFTA, claiming that it would boost Australia’s GDP by nearly $6 billion. A large proportion of these gains came from a fanciful decrease in Australia’s “equity risk premia” – a result described by Professor Ross Garnaut at the time as “not passing the laugh test”.

A decade on, The Crawford School at the ANU delivered its assessment of the AUSFTA, which showed the agreement diverted Australia’s trade away from the lowest-cost sources. Australia and the United States reduced their trade with rest of the world by US$53 billion and are worse off than they would have been without the agreement.


The AUSFTA also included extensions to both patent and copyright terms, which has raised the cost of pharmaceuticals and copyrighted materials in Australia.

Unfortunately, the last thing the Coalition wants is transparency and accountability, which is why it prefers to use paid consultants to do the analysis of trade deals, or refuses to undertake any analysis at all.

C’mon Andrew Robb. Let the PC review the TPP. What are you afraid of? What are you trying to hide?


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About the author
Leith van Onselen is Chief Economist at the MB Fund and MB Super. He is also a co-founder of MacroBusiness. Leith has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs.