Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 12 February 2015
Page: 655


Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (15:56): I see the challenge and the disconnect with this trade agreement slightly differently to Senator Wong. I think the Australian people and other countries around the world who are also conducting large plurilateral trade agreements, such as the European Union, have seen these agreements as simply being about business deregulation. We know from leaked documents through WikiLeaks that there are 29 chapters in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. We know from these leaked documents that what is being negotiated, in secret, behind closed doors, are actually the laws of our country. Only a small component of this trade deal is actually traditional trades in goods and services in the way we understand them—in terms of looking at issues around tariffs, changes to quotas, classic trade liberalisation.

This is business deregulation in areas of significant public interest. Senator Wong has already covered some of those very sensitive issues, like IP and access to cheap and affordable medicines. We know they are on the table. The three very important words Senator Payne mentioned in both of her summaries, including today in question time, were 'difficult outstanding issues' that need to be resolved. There is a very good reason why they are difficult outstanding issues: they are very sensitive and they present significant risks to us and our economy.

As we have opened up our economy over the years, as we have liberalised our economy, we do not have much left to trade. There are the so-called sacred cows, like our IP laws, digital rights, environmental standards. In that I could include a broad range of things, such as labelling, local procurement, local content in media and the operation of state-owned enterprises. Actually, it is the first time that laws that will impact, potentially, government-owned enterprises that compete in commercial spaces have been included in a trade deal. If we do not have carve-outs in areas like broadcasting, who knows what the future of the ABC and SBS will be under a deal like this? We are dealing with a very, very broad set of negotiations that impact just about every aspect of Australian life.

When I came to the Senate it was my understanding that we, as parliamentarians—both at a federal level and at a state level, and even at a local government level—make the laws in this country. We are elected by the people to make laws in this country—not negotiators behind closed doors or the trade minister, and not corporations or governments abroad. We make the laws in this country. So how is it that we have got ourselves in a situation where we have secret trade deals?

Senator Payne, I went to a couple of these TPP briefings. They were confidential. The media was not allowed. We got no information whatsoever on anything. We got very similar summaries to what you just gave. They were hardly exploratory or explanatory around the issues that were worrying people in the room. Whereas we know, factually, especially in the US, that special interests, especially business interests, have had significant ongoing access to these negotiations for a long period of time. To suggest that somehow it has been an open and transparent process is patently false. It has been a secret process.

As Senator Wong was saying, no doubt there are sensitivities to releasing this information. But this is where I think the disconnect is. If this was not just about business deregulation, if this was also about how the exchange of goods and services could be a force for good in our society, I do not think there would be opposition to trade deals. That is the difference between those who advocate for fair trade and those who advocate for free trade. This is an absolutely critical point to my party, the Greens, and our philosophy around trade deals.

If you are negotiating business access and deregulation and negotiating exporting and importing investment across borders, given that just about every environmental problem and social problem that we have in Australia, in this region and internationally is the result of a business decision, what better time to deal with environmental issues, labour standards and other key areas of public importance than during those trade deals?

This is not a fantasy. I have had a couple of productive meetings with the US consulate on the TPPA over the last few years. They said to me, 'Senator, you are going to support this deal because it is going to be good for the environment. It is going to be good for improving labour standards in the region.' There have been discussions and papers published in the US about binding agreements amongst the countries in the TPP on sustainable fishing practices, species and biodiversity loss, deforestation and emissions schemes in the region. But we have seen in the leaked chapter on the environment that there is nothing of the sort. There is not only no binding or enforceable agreements; there is weak language that we know our government has helped rewrite so that there is no action at all on environmental issues. Economic problems are environmental problems and vice versa. These are, contrary to what Senator Cormann said in estimates, the right opportunities to fix this and get this right.

I had dinner last night at ANU with some very interesting academics and this is a topic that we discussed. One international expert who studies international law said, 'These kind of agreements could also be very useful when we are dealing with businesses behind closed doors to get agreements on information sharing around tax avoidance and profit shifting.' That is an issue that we have discussed in this chamber very recently, and the Senate is going to be looking into it. Why is it that it is only about business deregulation, companies making more profits and us removing barriers to the free exchange of goods and services?

This is why I think the Australian public is deeply suspicious of deals like this and why they rightly raise concerns over the lack of transparency and the influence of large, powerful corporations over governments, not only our government. They are writing our laws behind closed doors. We in this building have a right to know. We supported Senator Wong's order for the production of documents to have the TPP released 14 days before it is signed by cabinet. We would have preferred for that to be released much earlier but at least this is much better than having it signed by cabinet and sent to JSCOT. We can look at it and we can make as much commentary in the world as we want but it will make no difference at the end of the day when it gets put up for a vote. You either stand in front of a speeding train or you get out of the way. There may very well be some good things in this deal. But at the moment we know nothing about it except what we have seen from leaked chapters, and what we know is of significant concern. I would say to Senator Payne that, if you want the Australian public to back your trade deals and you have nothing to hide, release the details.

Australians are also suspicious because trade deals are always overpromised and they always underdeliver, especially our bilateral trade deals. We have recently seen a very good report released by ANU about essentially what a load of rubbish our free trade deal with the US has been. What has it achieved for this economy? The Productivity Commission has talked about this. Even the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry raised valid questions about the benefits of bilateral trade deals. We have so many of them, you have to wonder whether this is a political exercise to get headlines and to act as a distraction from domestic issues.

Something was made very clear during Prime Minister Tony Abbott's address in reply to the Governor-General's speech. I think it was in the second paragraph of that speech when he said, 'This government will be remembered for its free trade deals.' As Senator Payne said, this was a trifecta of trade deals. Well, I do not think the Australian people are going to be kind, because with potential benefits also come potential costs.

It is time to end the secrecy. It is time for the Australian parliament to do its job in making laws and look at this now, before it is too late, before it is signed and before this entire region is locked into an agreement that allows union officials and organisers in Vietnam to be locked up and that allows human rights abuses in countries, like Brunei, that we are going to be trading with, not to mention enormous environmental degradation problems across the South-East Asian region—when all it will seem that we care about are profits and businesses. Trade theory says that that brings benefits to our countries and that those who lose—and, invariably, there are losers, like the car industry, which got sold down the river—are somehow compensated by the winners. That is what a textbook will tell you. But what happens when those winners actually do not live in Australia but are multinational companies operating out of here? In the real world, the losers are not compensated. There are always costs to these deals, but the government never highlights those. It always oversells and always under-delivers.

It is time to be honest. Release the TPP text or at least consider Labor's order for the production of documents to release it 14 days before it is signed, as a sign of good faith to the Australian people that you will allow scrutiny of this document before it is signed and before the media spin machine gets in action. If I as a senator or I as a citizen of this country raise a valid concern about changes to patent lengths on pharmaceuticals, suddenly I am anti-jobs or I am anti-economics—I am down at the bottom of the garden with the fairies. I am raising very real, serious issues here that are live and being raised all around the world. So, Senator Payne, through you, Chair, I ask once again that you at least consider releasing this text or, if you do not, give the Australian public a good reason why not.

Question agreed to.