Monday, 15 June 2015
Private Members' Business
I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss the issue of Australia's involvement in free trade agreements. While the government has made a lot of noise and claimed a lot of credit when it comes to settling free trade agreements, there has not been the same interest in allowing proper transparency and consideration of those agreements. The aura of obscurity and secrecy around these deals has been considerable, matching the government's approach in other areas like asylum seeker policy. This motion specifically identifies the free-trade agreements the government has struck with Japan, South Korea and China—claiming blithely, and without reference to detail, any cost-benefit analysis or independent assessment, that these 'mutually constructive agreements' will result in 'stability and economic prosperity'.
In fact the agreements are not balanced and reciprocal; their independently assessed economic benefit is marginal, confined to small gains in agricultural market access, while giving much away. The Korea FTA contains an extraordinary anomaly in relation to employment provisions that opens the door to virtually any Korean workers in Australia but makes it almost impossible for Australians wanting to work in Korea. In the China FTA, the government appears to have made unprecedented concessions on the use of temporary migrant labour. A memorandum of understanding separate from the text of the trade agreement gives Chinese investors in projects valued over $150 million additional rights to bring in temporary migrant workers without undertaking labour market testing, allowing Chinese firms to by-pass laws requiring advertising to first see if suitably qualified local workers are available to do the work. Union and industry groups are concerned about the impact on local employment and the potential for exploitation of workers who will be tied to one employer and may not have English language skills or health and safety training.
The agreements with Korea and China also contain investor-state dispute settlement provisions, which allow multinational companies to sue countries in international private tribunals for domestic laws or administrative frameworks that impact upon their profits; for instance health, environmental and labour regulations, food labelling or quality and safety standards. This is why the former Labor government was not prepared to sign an agreement with Korea, while the current government clearly did. The fact is you can reach any agreement if you are prepared to agree to anything, including giving away your country's rights to govern itself.
Australians enjoy a life-expectancy that is very close to the best in the world—and a large contributor to that has been our ability to seriously reduce tobacco use. Yet right now the Philip Morris tobacco company is using an ISDS clause in an obscure Hong Kong-Australia investment agreement to sue the Australian government in relation to our plain-packaging reforms, despite the laws having been upheld in our own High Court. Uruguay is also being sued by Philip Morris for its anti-tobacco measures, a move that could bankrupt that country. A US mining company has sued Canada for a fracking moratorium. A Swedish company is suing Germany because it decided to phase out nuclear power after the Fukushima disaster. The French Veolia corporation is suing the Egyptian government for having the temerity to raise the minimum wage. This is free-market corporatisation gone mad. This is nowhere more evident than in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement currently under secret negotiation, which, with its far-reaching ISDS provisions, will put Australian sovereignty and self-determination at risk. Only last week we learned, through Wikileaks, that the TPP will include provisions in the ironically-named 'Healthcare Transparency Annex' that will enable multinational pharmaceutical companies to challenge and bypass national healthcare legislation that seeks to properly regulate access and price arrangements for the greater public good.
I think we all know that this government is desperate to find a topic of economic management under which it can claim some kind of achievement—and so far it is the entry into various free trade agreements that seems to occupy that role. Unfortunately, this only works to the extent that the detail and substantive effect of those agreements remain hidden from public view.