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Wednesday, 4 March 1998
Page: 368

Senator MARGETTS (3:40 PM) —I move:

That in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The failure of the Government, in its consideration of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, to consult widely with the public and Parliament of Australia to ensure that Australia retains the ability to adequately regulate all aspects of international investment in order to protect the people and environment of Australia.

I would like to take the opportunity of thanking my colleague Senator Brown from the Australian Greens, and the Australian Democrats, in supporting this motion of urgency.

This motion is urgent because the outcome may appear before anyone properly knows the details that are being debated. Sir Anthony Mason, an ex-Chief Justice of the High Court, has been quoted recently as saying the Multilateral Agreement on Investment has been negotiated under a veil of secrecy.

While negotiating documents and briefs have been available to those in the know, either directly from the OECD or from their Web pages—if you can get into them—Sir Anthony is not ignorant in making his veil of secrecy comment. He was referring to the process in which Australia's negotiating position is effectively decided by Mr Costello and a handful of economic fundamentalists from Treasury behind closed doors. If we ask, we might get the public face of their position, but we have no idea of their real agenda, what they have said, which points they will push, where they are willing to give way, and what deals and alternative schemes and wordings they are putting up. We have no idea of their guiding principles and values.

The issue is huge and likely to dramatically affect our economy and society and the process of world development. As a process, I believe negotiations on a major enforceable agreement should carry responsibility for information sharing to the broad public, canvassing concerns and issues from the public—bodies like unions, social justice groups, small business and consumer associations—and direct input from parliament. Determining negotiating points, concerns and bottom line agreements requirements should be the outcome of broad public and parliamentary debate.

MAI is the latest manifestation of the push by global corporations to do whatever they want without restrictions by mere nations. An earlier manifestation was the trade-related investment measures or TRIMS during the GATT rounds. Corporations thought they had won when the Uruguay Round was finalised and the World Trade Organisation was established. The World Trade Organisation can impose major cross-sectoral sanctions against any member country violating its principles, and decisions can be made which are binding on all member nations, regardless of whether they agree. Under GATT, each agreement needed to be signed by each nation as a separate treaty.

When the corporations tried pushing their investment agenda into the World Trade Organisation, the developing world rebelled. In 1995 the push for TRIMS was refocused on the OECD, on the principle that if an agreement was reached the poorer nations would be forced to follow. The investment agenda has also appeared as the US push on investment principles during the APEC negotiations in 1994 and more recently through the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency.

The OECD argues that the Multilateral Agreement on Investment will not adversely affect any nation's sovereign right to set environmental standards. It says that the clauses in NAFTA will be used as a model for protection. NAFTA clauses have not slowed the problems in the United States with Mexican pollution laws. They have not improved. Some concern is expressed that there should be measures to ensure that no nation lowers its environmental standards to attract investment. But even if MAI included legal constraints against such action—a highly unlikely prospect that would be—all nations would be under intense competitive pressure not to increase their standards of protection.

We have already seen health standards fall with the cadmium standards and the standards on herbicide residues that were changed to allow Monsanto to import genetically engineered `roundup-ready' soybeans. Similar assurances were given on sovereignty on quarantine and we have already seen assaults, as Senator Woodley would attest, to regulations regarding salmon, chicken meat and other products.

MAI would prevent any imposition of corporate codes of conduct by Australia or other nations, and may render US legislation against corrupt practices illegal because it is a nation imposing standards on corporations investing in another country.

Other major objections by developing nations include the non-discrimination measures. These would prevent countries such as China or Vietnam setting minimum wage levels for workers in transnational corporations which are higher than those for indigenous companies. The fact that these wages for transnational corporations may be only $1 a day does not matter since imposing such exorbitant wages on foreign transnationals is patently unfair. Both the MAI and APEC investment measures seek to prevent any nation from imposing any requirement on foreign investment, such as for further investment in downstream processing.

Another issue is the free movement of capital and assets. This will allow open slather on speculative investment, and it will allow corporations to maximise their ability to evade or minimise tax. It will also protect corporations from actions like those taken by the government of India when it froze some of Union Carbide's assets in the wake of the Bhopal disaster. It will prevent Australia from attaching assets of Ghana Ashanti, as was mentioned in the news today, to ensure workers are paid what is owed them. It will prevent the closure of a stock market or the freezing of transfers in balance of payment crises. It will effectively prevent any action against the kind of speculative currency raiding that went on when the European Union was trying to unify.

MAI would stop any discrimination between foreign and other investments. It could mean no foreign investment level restrictions. It could mean no measures ensuring that even one Australian bank is owned. It could mean no restriction on foreign shareholding of media, the phone system or even one airline.

You might say, `Ah, but we are looking for exemptions.' There could effectively be no measures that promote Australian investment that are not equally available to foreign investment. Exceptions, or non-conforming measures, are possible, but we would be subject to both continuing scrutiny and roll- back. The OECD papers explicitly state that the ultimate objective of MAI is the elimination of all such exceptions. Like the World Trade Organisation, under MAI a country agrees to the whole program and seeks exceptions rather than have the ability to sign on to the parts it wishes to. So everything that is not in that list is fair game.

The MAI also includes restrictions on expropriation and impairing investment returns through laws, and states that compensation must be paid. It develops mechanisms that allow companies to bring nations within it before a tribunal, while nations have no such right since transnational organisations have no responsibilities.

In short, it is a charter of corporate rights without responsibilities. Do you not think, honourable senators, that the people of Australia ought to have had more information from our government about this agreement? (Time expired)