Not all of the action in Canberra this week is in Parliament or Senate estimates. Officials from 12 countries yesterday began the latest round of secretive negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They’ll spend a week in Canberra thrashing out remaining issues in a trade treaty the Abbott government had hoped could be finalised by the end of last year. The draft treaty text is said to be 90% finalised, but the remaining 10% of matters, of course, are the hard ones. Ministers will meet next weekend in Sydney following the negotiations, and there may be meetings in Beijing when APEC meets there in the first two weeks of November.

A key impediment to any deal, however, remains in place: there’ll be no deal done without the United States putting in place a Trade Promotion Authority — the ability to fast-track treaty approval through Congress with a simple yes-or-no vote. And there’ll be no TPA at least until after the coming mid-term elections; there’s speculation the post-election “lame-duck” session will deliver it to US President Barack Obama, who requested it at the beginning of the year. The other hurdle is from Japan, where the Abe government is reluctant to offer any agricultural access given it faces elections next year and Abe has publicly flagged the difficulty of overcoming domestic resistance to reducing agricultural protections.

The word “secretive” is more appropriate to use about TPP negotiations than “secret”: countries like the United States have given large companies and industry peak bodies access to the draft TPP text but refused to make it public. By one count, over 600 American company executives have been allowed see and comment on a text the public is not permitted to view. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which received an unusual rebuke for its appalling secretiveness over negotiations for the now abandoned Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), has tried hard to pretend to consult over TPP. It claims it is “open to receiving submissions on the TPP at anytime”, as if trying to comment on something one cannot see isn’t an exercise in absurdity. Remarkably, DFAT actually banned journalists from its “consultations” a year ago.

Thanks to leaks, however, the chapter most threatening to Australian citizens and businesses, on intellectual property, has been made available: in 2011, and via WikiLeaks in August last year and again last week; as Crikey detailed, the draft IP has now become even more damaging to Australian interests as the US seeks to impose measures that foundered when countries declined to accede to ACTA. As the Productivity Commission has explained, intellectual property chapters of “free trade” agreements tend to be damaging to Australia’s interests; the recent Harper Review draft on competition law singled out intellectual property as requiring a review to “assess the principles and processes followed by the Australian Government when establishing negotiating mandates to incorporate intellectual property provisions in international trade agreements” and that a cost-benefit analysis of IP provisions should be conducted and published before Australia agrees to any IP-related treaty. Despite the government’s apparent enthusiasm for cost-benefit analyses when it comes to the NBN, there’s so far no evidence of such analysis being undertaken, let alone published.

With such well-sourced concerns about the damage to the national interest that the US’ IP provisions will inflict, you’d think the government would be hastening slowly on the TPP, but it has already demonstrated a compulsion to conclude trade agreements simply for the sake of being able to announce them, no matter how absurd some “free trade” measures actually are. The government has also demonstrated it is gung-ho for the agenda of the multinational copyright industry, which wants to turn Australian businesses into its unpaid enforcement arm. Only Japanese and American political hurdles appear to now stand in the way.

Correction: The original text of this article stated that there had been two leaks of the IP chapter; in fact there was also a leak in 2011.

Peter Fray

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