That about wraps it up for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, killed off by a smirking Donald Trump in one of his first acts as President, presumably between furious rants about accurate reporting by the media. Australia’s Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, demonstrating the five stages of grief, is still in denial, claiming that it could still go ahead and even that China and Indonesia could be brought into it. Eventually, he might work out that performing CPR on a skeleton is a waste of time, but until then it will be fun to watch.

Even erstwhile spruikers of the TPP have now abandoned it. Professor Judith “Entertaining Mr” Sloan at The Australian once savaged “ratbags making hysteric and misinformed comments” about the TPP, including the ABC. Only in November — well after Trump’s victory — Sloan was lauding the deal. Now the good prof has changed her mind about what she terms the “dead-on-arrival Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement”, accusing Malcolm Turnbull of “spruiking a dead cat” (careful there, Judith). “We should not overlook that there were some contentious clauses in the TPP,” Sloan admitted, “such as the investor-to-state resolution clauses — something the US insisted be included in the early negotiations — and the extension of copyright and patent protections, which mainly would benefit the US.”

To the credit of Australia’s lead negotiator, Andrew Robb, both investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS) and the patent issue were partly — partly — ameliorated in the final draft from Australia’s point of view. The bigger problem with the TPP was that it simply had virtually no benefits for Australia: even the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could find few benefits; a World Bank analysis found that the TPP would increase Australia’s GDP by just 0.7% in total (not annually) between now and 2030. This echoed a US government analysis showing negligible benefits for the US economy.

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The lack of evidence of benefits from the TPP is why the government refused at all stages to countenance any independent assessment of the deal, even after an extraordinary intervention by Productivity Commission chairman Peter Harris, who criticised the lack of proper analysis and said he could do a proper assessment in four months. The PC has long been deeply sceptical of the over-hyped benefits of free trade agreements, especially the bilateral trade agreements, which sound great but merely serve to divert exports to different markets.

And that refusal to allow independent assessment of its cherished deal was of a piece with the intense secrecy in which the deal was negotiated — secret, that is, unless you were a US corporation, in which case you were allowed to see the text of the deal as it was being drafted, and even draft it yourself. In the end we had to rely on WikiLeaks to keep us up to date on the progress of drafting the agreement.

While the highly paid shiny bums of DFAT, and both Coalition and Labor politicians (the latter were guilty of the same secrecy on trade negotiations for equally bad trade deals like ACTA when in government), doubtless thought they were being clever by hiding the TPP from the public, in fact they were simply demonstrating how the deal had nothing to do with the national interest and much to do with our truckling to the United States and its corporate agenda, and demonstrating how illegitimate the entire process was. And in the end, the process that produced the deal was so discredited that neither of the US presidential election candidates was going to endorse it.

Perhaps trade negotiators, instead of engaging in denial, should reflect on their failure and work out a more democratic and legitimate way of trying to remove trade barriers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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