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Oct 31 2013

Continuing trade talks secrecy threatens sovereignty

In what is ironically Global Transparency Week, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has uninvited a journalist from a briefing on the ongoing Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade negotiations. The agreement is expected to be signed before the end of the year and could mean a radical transfer of power from governments to corporations.

The invitation on the DFAT website (which has since been deleted) said the briefing was open to “members of the public, and business and civil society stakeholders”. ZDNet’s Josh Taylor initially received confirmation of his RSVP, but then received an email saying the briefing was “off the record” so journalists are not “eligible” to attend. Following outrage on social media, DFAT conceded Taylor could attend the briefing as long as he did not publish any of the information. Apparently, DFAT says it is happy to organize a briefing specifically “tailored” for journalists.

Pirate Party Australia’s Brendan Molloy writes in the Guardian:

Of course, we wouldn’t want journalists to see the difficult questions being asked by the stakeholders in civil society, and have the non-answers provided by the bureaucrats marked down on the public record for all to see, criticise and remember, would we now? This demonstrates the sheer level of unnecessary secrecy afforded to these negotiations of an agreement that could have a profound impact on our domestic legislation.

On the Pirate Party website, Molloy adds:

I’ve already had a freedom of information request have a fee levied with the justification that the TPP isn’t in the public interest because there have been few articles written about it. It’s pretty hard to write an article about something when you’re barred from attending the briefings, and instead offered an arrangement where you’re spoonfed Government spin and prevented from hearing the important, unanswered questions being asked by the stakeholders that shine a harsher light on this secretive agreement.

The result of the (crowdfunded) FoI request was

about a thousand blacked-out pages, some publicly available information and insightful emails such as the negotiating team nearly booking the wrong hotel in the US, but basically nothing regarding the content of the TPP. Not good enough.

The Pirates are not the only party concerned about the TPP. Greens trade spokesperson Peter Whish-Wilson comments:

The TPPA trade talks are one of the most significant events facing this country today, as they potentially carry grave risks for Australia’s sovereignty, society, and economy. […] Unless the Abbott Government removes the wall of secrecy, concerns will continue to build that the only thing ‘free’ about the TPPA is that it is a ‘free for all’ for giant, profit seeking multinational corporations looking after their own interests.

While the secrecy surrounding the TPP is a global issue, it fits neatly into the anti-transparency approach of Australia’s new Liberal government, encapsulated by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s remark that “happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics” (ignorance is bliss?). The intense secrecy around the TPP, with only American corporate lobbyists allowed into the talks, strongly implies the governments negotiating it have something to hide. It looks like free trade talks are being used as an opaque avenue to sneak through policies advancing corporate power which can’t be achieved through democratic domestic political processes.

Leaked drafts of the TPP have revealed a radical agenda which could involve: “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) which would give multinational corporations the power to sue a government for any policy that hurts their profits in an unaccountable tribunal with unlimited powers; limits on green purchasing requirements; and draconian intellectual property laws including criminalization of copyright infringement done without commercial benefit. The first point has particularly sweeping implications because any number of policies in the public interest could threaten corporate profits, and hence could be overturned through ISDS. The former Labor government was opposed to ISDS, but the new Government may be open to it.

The TPP could be agreed before most Australians even realize what is happening. Investor-state dispute settlement represents an attack on national sovereignty and on the very heart of democracy, at a time when we need accountable government more than ever. We should be decarbonizing the Australian and global economy as rapidly as possible to prevent climate change spiralling out of our control. If governments sign away their power to regulate transnational corporations, then it will become virtually impossible to solve climate change and the other problems we face in the 21st century.

7,000 people have signed a petition by consumer advocacy group CHOICE calling on the Australian government to release the TPP text before it is signed. You can sign it here.

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