The lack of credible analysis of the impact on the Trans-Pacific Partnership on the economy was on vivid display yesterday when Trade Minister Andrew Robb tabled the agreement to which the Turnbull government secretly agreed in October.

Accompanying the text of the agreement was a “National Interest Analysis” of the TPP written by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The document wasn’t placed online until last night, meaning you had to go and get a copy from the tabling office in Parliament. It was a final grace note for what has been an entirely secret process in which basic accountability has been wholly absent.

Perhaps DFAT was ashamed of its document, because there isn’t a single sentence of actual analysis in the dozens and dozens of pages of the document or its attachments. The entire “National Interest Analysis” is simply a detailed description of what the TPP contains, the commitments made by countries that are party to the agreement and the size of the various sectors involved. Actual assessment of the economic benefits or costs is wholly absent. The closest the “analysis” comes to actual analysis is vague sentences like:

“The TPP will promote further growth and diversification of Australian outward investment by liberalising investment regimes in key sectors for which the TPP region accounts for a major share of global investment … The TPP will also promote further growth and diversification of foreign investment in Australia by liberalising the screening threshold … The TPP includes additional commitments which will lower the costs of doing business… The TPP tackles new trade challenges by promoting innovation, productivity, and competitiveness …”

In the “Impact Analysis” section of Attachment II, where you’d expect to find the nitty-gritty of how much different sectors would win or lose under each section of the agreement, DFAT simply rehearses the tariff reduction schedules in the TPP and notes how much each sector is worth to Australia. The closest it gets to analysis is rigorous statements like “the TPP has delivered high quality outcomes that will open substantial new trade and investment opportunities for Australia”. There are some numbers, but they’re right at the end, where DFAT estimates how much Australian business will save from lower Certificate of Origin paperwork — a grand total of $147,000.

So, the only actual hard evidence in the government’s entire analysis of the TPP is that businesses will save less than $150,000 on paperwork.

That, literally, is it. If a first-year uni student handed in such stuff, they’d be (hopefully) failed. Of course, DFAT is a famously economically illiterate department, but it couldn’t even hire a consultant to conjure up some modelling showing massive economic benefits and thousands of new jobs. At the very least, you might have expected an effort to refute the World Bank’s forensic dissection of the agreement, which showed that the TPP would grow Australia’s GDP by just 0.7% by 2030. The only mention of the World Bank analysis in the NIA notes that its conclusions have been confirmed by other independent analysis, and suggests that the economic growth benefits identified by the Bank “will increase as other significant economies in the region join over time with some, such as Indonesia, Korea and the Philippines, already having indicated a desire to do so.”

So, remarkably the World Bank’s analysis showing trivial benefits for Australia is actually endorsed by DFAT, with the hope that they’ll get bigger if other countries join in.

Andrew Robb continues to reject calls for a proper cost-benefit analysis of the agreement by a reliable, independent source such as the Productivity Commission. His rationale? He told the ABC last week that those calling for an independent analysis “are all the usual suspects … most of the people who are driving that campaign have been opponents to free-trade agreements for decades frankly. They are entitled to that point of view but the fact is that nothing that would come out of an inquiry would satisfy them.”

Among the many bodies that have called for an independent assessment of the impact of the TPP is the Productivity Commission itself. In July last year, its chairman, Peter Harris, outlined a process by which the PC — or some other body, Harris didn’t mind which — could have undertaken an assessment within four months.

Robb is thus suggesting that the Productivity Commission — the most hard-headed, economically rationalist government body in the country — opposes free trade and is part of a campaign against it. And in place of a proper, independent and rigorous analysis, he’s presented an embarrassing collation of talking points.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey