The failure of talks to conclude the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership over the weekend is welcome news. The government now has an opportunity to address concerns that entering into this preferential trade agreement will damage Australia’s interests, by asking the Productivity Commission to assess the agreement.
According to Trade Minister Andrew Robb, “98%” of the TPP “is concluded”, with only a handful of high-profile matters outstanding. On that basis, the Productivity Commission would be able to analyse the costs and benefits of the deal and model different options for the remaining outstanding matters, to offer an overall assessment of whether the TPP would be good for Australia.
This assessment process would not breach the secrecy that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade insists must be attached to the draft text. The government has already agreed to allow MPs and senators who were prepared to sign an undertaking of confidentiality to examine the text — the draft text could be provided to the Productivity Commission on a similar basis.
The PC’s analysis could inform public and parliamentary debate about the final agreement. If the TPP is found to be beneficial in net terms, that would provide a different context for considering those areas where Australia has agreed to negative consequences (for example, on intellectual property, or on investor-state dispute settlement) than if, overall, the treaty was of no benefit, or actually negative, in net terms.
In short, there is no good reason why Andrew Robb should not now ask Australia’s most respected and independent public economic body to vet the agreement he insists will be good for Australia. Unless, of course, it’s not.