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Why so secret? (Image via 350.org)

DFAT held a public consultation about the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership last week, but didn’t reveal much apart from saying it would be good for business. Dr Matt Mitchell reports.

AT THE Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) in Melbourne last week, a stakeholder meeting was held concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

On the opening slide, attendees were informed that the TPP will be a “high quality” trade agreement. However, it appears that what DFAT means is “high quality” for corporations, not the community.

When asked by what measure would the TPP be “high quality”, attendees were told:

“… because it reduces tariffs.”

Well, reducing tariffs may or may not be a good thing, depending on what you want to achieve. But it seems that the question of what is best for Australia has disappeared from the thinking of the department.

Simply ticking off outcomes from long-standing corporate wish lists is sufficient both as an aim and a justification for any decision. No need to bother questioning these objectives or prerogatives in light of the lessons of previous agreements involving investor state dispute settlement (ISDS), such as the current Phillip-Morris case against Australia.

In this case, Phillip Morris is using the ISDS provisions of different trade agreement to challenge the Australian Government's ability to legislate health laws — despite the Australian High Court having already ruled on this. 

If, in fact, the outcome is in any way high quality for the community, then it will be by accident rather than design.

In 2010, the Productivity Commission investigated high quality processes for trade agreements, and such processes invariably involve transparency and openness.

Transparency is entirely lacking in the TPP process. This is especially concerning when the leaked documents reveal that the TPP is granting special rights to corporations.

DFAT seems to be expected a high quality outcome from a fifth-rate process.

In fact, the DFAT negotiators who ran the meeting seemed to dedicate their answers to defending the process and the TPP in general. More to the point, one got the impression that they had somehow been seconded into the service of the multinational corporations behind the TPP.

Corporations are reportedly co-authoring the TPP text [here is a list of the 605 corporations who can see the text] whilst the Australian community is shut-out — their voices and concerns met by bland and evasive corporate legalese spouted by the DFAT negotiators.

It appears that there is absolutely no chance of any of the community's concerns being considered.

For example, when asked about nasty elements of the leaked environment chapter, the negotiators response was, in essence:

“We will not talk about leaked text, which may or may not be in the TPP.”

Before the change of government, the negotiators' position was easier — they could confidently say ISDS was not on the table for Australia. Now, however, it is a “bargaining chip”.

When asked what sort of things ISDS might be traded for, the negotiators would not say.

In effect, this amounts to a complete shut-out of the community in relation to an issue that will affect future Australian sovereignty, possibly for generations. How can you possible call such a meeting a “stakeholder consultation” when the most important issues cannot be discussed at even the most basic and abstract levels?

Nevertheless, the negotiators defended DFAT's position by claiming that over 700 consultation meetings had been held to date. The number may have well been 70,000 — it would make make no difference; the quantity is not important when there is no substantive engagement offered nor available.

So how have we ended up in this situation? One where public servants, drawing on the public purse, and expected to act in Australia's best interest are instead defending the positions of corporations in relation to trade? They are defending a corporate-designed process intended to hoodwink and bamboozle the public — not just in Australia, but all the TPP partner nations.

This undemocratic and corrupt process is also being aided and abetted by our elected representatives (or supposedly representative).

That we could have arrived at this point and have public servants and politicians actively deceiving the Australian people as part of excluding Australians from meaningful debate about important national issues just beggars belief. It proves how corrupted by corporate power and money our entire political system and public service has become.

As a result, Australians cannot act to reduce carbon emissions; we cannot save the Barrier Reef; we struggle to protect our land from coal seam gas fracking; we are exposed to dangerously high levels of concentrated ownership in industries ranging from media, to finance, to food manufacture and retail [read about our supermarket duopoly here].

Massive companies and multinational organisations dominate all these areas and more, eliminating small-players and silencing or drowning out small and critical voices.

At the same time, rafts of experts from the UN to the IPCC are warning that we must move towards decentralisation and more natural systems in relation to the most important industry of all — food production.

The UK Department for International Development recently produced a report that states:

‘Trade liberalisation will not bring the expected development benefits when agricultural markets do not function competitively. An associated risk is a polarisation of agribusiness and small-scale farming systems.’

This is consistent with the Australian Productivity Commission's 2010 warnings about the benefits of trade agreements being overstated and based on poor modelling.

Extreme as it may seem, perhaps the only way now to save our democracy, our natural environment and, given the imminent food crisis, our own skins, is to break-up the multinationals. 

I am not the first to propose this.

Respected political U.S. commentator Thom Hartmann suggested this in March last year.

Hartmann argues that corporations should never have been let get so big in the first place, then adds:

“It's time to break up the big companies, from banks to retail chains to telecom groups, bring mom and pop shops back to Main Street USA, and kick competition killing duopolies and oligarchies out of the American marketplace.”

Forced corporate break-ups are not new, they have happened before. Rockefeller's Standard Oil was considered too big and was broken up under the United States' Sherman Act — an anti-trust (anti-monopoly) law.

I am suggesting that Australia, and ideally other nations, should act to break up the multinationals.

I am no corporate lawyer, but in Australia, perhaps it could work something like this: any company above a certain market capitalisation must break up and sell off its Australian operations, and in such a way that the parent company, or the parent's major shareholders, cannot own shares in its former parts. The new, smaller companies can still produce and sell Ford motor cars, or Nestlé products, but under licence from the parent, not as a wholly or partly owned subsidiary. 

I can see no other way to free our society and our lives from the blight of large corporations, which have corrupted our political system, are privatising all our public assets and services and are reshaping Australia and our lives in their own lifeless and inhuman image.

Postscript

On March 5th, the Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson introduced the Trade and Foreign Investment (Protecting the Public Interest) Act 2014 into the Senate.

The purpose of the Bill is to protect Australian laws by banning provisions that enable foreign investors to sue governments if domestic laws ‘harm’ their investment — known as ISDS.

AFTINET (Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network) has been asked to supply some points and references for people and organisations who want to make submissions.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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