Despite the Trans Pacific Partnership almost certainly being against Australia's interests, Tony Abbott will still sign it just for an ego trip photo opportunity. Dr Matthew Mitchell reports.

WHY WOULD ANY POLITICIAN sign Australia up to an agreement that undermines our sovereignty, exposes taxpayers to expensive law suits and generally locks in for good the processes of industrial decline that are already in train?

No other government was prepared to accept the worst element of the TPP: Investor State Dispute Settlement. Even John Howard rejected this in the Australia-USA free trade agreement.

And just as well he did, as the Productivity Commission (2010) report on trade suggests that the benefits of that agreement were negligible. In fact, according to the Productivity Commission – a conservative, pro-trade body – the benefits of trade agreements tend to be overstated and the assumptions often questionable. 

In case you are not familiar with ISDS, here is an account of the Ecuadorian experience.

The background of this story is that Ecuador’s highest court found the U.S. oil giant Chevron was responsible for dumping billions of gallons of toxic water and had dug hundreds of open-air oil sludge pits in Ecuador’s Amazon, poisoning the communities of some 30,000 Amazon residents, including the entire populations of six Indigenous groups — one of which is now extinct.

They were ordered to pay $9.5 billion in damages. Instead of paying Chevron has turned to an ISDS tribunal.

According to Public Citizen:

'Chevron asked the three-person extrajudicial tribunal to order the Ecuadorian government to suspend enforcement of the multi-billion dollar domestic court ruling. The tribunal granted that wish, ordering the government of Ecuador to violate its own Constitution, and interfere with the independent judiciary to stop the ruling. Now Chevron is asking the same extrajudicial tribunal to order Ecuador’s taxpayers to hand over to the corporation any of the billions in damages it might be required to pay to clean up the still-devastated Amazon, plus all the legal fees incurred by the corporation in its efforts to evade justice.'

That concern is specific to the ISDS clause of the trade agreement. But even without the ISDS, the TPP will likely be a bad trade agreement for Australia.

For example, Australia is a net importer of digital goods – which are typically more expensive here than they are overseas – and the TPP agreement seeks to extend copyright protections for these goods.

In fact, as the digital goods example demonstrates, trade agreements are not about free trade — even in those called Free Trade Agreements. They are largely lists of exceptions to free trade.

In fact, they often cement in monopolies – the opposite of free trade – by protecting the profits of the holders of copyright and Intellectual Property (IP). For example, protecting the profits of already highly profitable pharmaceutical companies, or film companies – such as the “Mickey Mouse” provision – that ensured that Walt’s famous character would not be released into the public domain although 70 years has passed since it was created. 

No, corporate wealth must remain corporate wealth — your wealth, however, is up for grabs.

And this is what trade agreements are really about. Who wins and who loses in the global carve up of markets.

Will Australia sign away its future of manufacturing so as to preserve Big Agriculture or Big Mining? Who knows? It is all being done in secret.

When we say Australia signs away its future in certain areas, what we really mean is that negotiators, directed by the government, will sign away these things — not you, of course. In fact, the public is not even allowed to see the text. Then, due to party politics, it likely will be almost automatically approved by parliament if the government has control of both houses, otherwise there might be some meaningful debate. But even parliament cannot change the text of the agreement. Certainly the decision does not go to people.

So, when do people or non-corporate (civil) groups get a say? Do civil organisations, non-profits, unions have any input? Well, they cannot see the text either. Otherwise, they may object to the clauses that are reportedly being formulated by U.S. negotiators in close consultation with representatives of U.S. multi-nationals.

But returning to our original question, why would any leader sign such a bad agreement, against the advice of the Productivity Commission and most civil organisations in Australia? What on earth could induce our leaders to carry out such a seemingly destructive act?

Firstly, if they do not sign, the big corporations and players, supported by the Murdoch press, will moan about how bad not signing is for Australia and the Australian economy. However, all the small producers and little men who might praise such an action will get little or no voice in the press. Thus the political scales are well balanced against refusing the TPP.

Of course, there are other benefits to signing also.

One is the satisfaction that comes from doing the bidding and gaining the praise of the most powerful organisations and the most powerful nation in the world. In fact, the distinction between U.S. policy and corporate policy seems somewhat hazy. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman is, apparently, just one example of corporate executives receiving a massive bonus pay-outs from industry for gaining high-level positions in the U.S. government.

Another benefit – highlighted by Dr Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute at a recent TPP forum in Melbourne – is the photo opportunity. 

Yes, according to Dr Denniss, the same primal desire that motivates Instagram users across the globe also motivates our lofty politicians: the ego trip photo opportunity. By signing the TPP, Tony Abbott has the chance to appear in mainstream media around Australia (and perhaps the world) shaking hands with the most powerful puppet in the world — the President of the United States of America:

(Image via abc.net.au)

Thus, in part for our leader’s ego and fame, we will sacrifice our jobs (some of us anyway) and most likely much of our natural environment, if the experience of the recent past is anything to go by. Yes, let us destroy our natural environment and our democracy for one man’s fleeting greatness, according to the will of the sovereign Australian people, as enshrined in our revered Constitution (which maybe should be revised in light of treaties like the TPP). And perhaps soon, someone will start to write a Diary of Dying Australia — just as there is now a Diary of a Dying Country being written for America from which an excerpt reads:

'Across the country, fracking is contaminating drinking water, making nearby families sick with air pollution and turning forest acres into industrial zones.'

Is this the future we want for Australia?

Perhaps we should keep locking the gates.

Further information and upcoming TPP related events

TPP community forum in Sydney, March 10 

Time: 6.30pm, Monday March 10

Venue: Newtown Neighbourhood Centre, 1 Bedford St, Newtown NSW 2042 

Dr Patricia Ranald from Australian Fair Trade & Investment Network Ltd. (AFTINET) will join representatives from environment and public health groups to address a community forum on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Newtown. More details here.

March in March in Sydney, March 16

Time: 1pm, Sunday March 16

Venue: Belmore Park, Hay St, Sydney

AFTINET is encouraging members and supporters to have a presence at the March in March Sydney event. This will include bringing banners, posters and fliers about the TPP. Details to be confirmed.

March in March across Australia 15-17 March – see details for other individual cities and towns here.

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