Senate debates

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers

Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement

3:27 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (Senator Conroy) to a question without notice asked by Senator Milne today relating to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement talks ended in Melbourne last week. We understand from those negotiations that Australia and the US now have very different positions in relation to the investor-state dispute settlement criteria. We know that big pharmaceuticals, big tobacco and big oil were coming back to get what they did not get in the US-Australia free trade agreement. As we all know, it has been a dud compared with the Howard government claim, particularly by, at the time, Minister Vaile, that there would be hundreds of thousands of jobs—which, of course, did not actually materialise.

We now have an agreement where the Americans have come back and Australia is involved in this process. The investor-state dispute settlement, for example, was for big tobacco to sue the Australian government because of its plain-packaging legislation. The provision will allow companies to sue governments if governments take action that have an adverse impact on profits or on business. It would be an absolute disaster if we allowed American companies to do that. You can imagine what would happen with the oil companies, the tobacco companies and the rest of them. Of course, the big pharmaceuticals could have a go at the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which is one of the great things we have in Australia that keeps medicines affordable.

I am very pleased to see that the minister today—and this is the first time it has happened in the parliament—made it clear that Australia is not going to include the investor-state dispute settlement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. The minister has said that they will not support greater legal rights for foreign businesses than those available to domestic businesses. I understand that has been a cabinet decision. It clearly has the support of the Prime Minister, and that means the Americans are clearly on notice that Australia is not going to agree to that. But what else does it mean? Does it mean that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead? How important is this provision for the United States? Is it simply going to mean that Australia signs up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement with an exclusion clause saying that we are excluded from those particular provisions?

What I want to know is: what exactly is Australia negotiating in this free trade agreement? We know that the United States lobbyists have been informed by the United States government as to what is on the table. There are 600 of those lobbyists, and they know exactly what the US is lobbying for. But Australians do not know. Nobody in Australia has been informed by the government as to the things on the table that are being negotiated away in this so-called free trade agreement.

One of the areas has been the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, as I mentioned. Not only that, but there are copyright and patent laws that we want to preserve. We do not want to see the Americans being able to push for keeping patents longer and therefore stopping generic medicines. We do not want to see the Americans coming back and trying to take more in terms of copyright law and, in particular, undermining Australia's legislation on local content in our media.

So what we have left is services. This is a big worry, because we understand that what is on the table here for the first time—and this is much more secretive than the WTO processes—is in fact a negative list. So it would be an assumption that all services are in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement except those that appear on the negative list. The problem is that the service industry is expanding and changing so fast in light of the new communications sector and so on that people will not get things on the negative list. Therefore, they will automatically be covered in the future.

This is a worry, and what we need from the government is some transparency. The government are saying, 'We are consulting stakeholders,' but they are not. Stakeholders in Australia—from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry right down through all the industry sectors, the NGOs and the service providers—do not know what Australia is negotiating away on behalf of the people. This is a national interest issue, and we should have transparency. Yes, I welcome the government's commitment to not include investor-state dispute settlement processes. But I want to know what they are putting on the negative list in the services sector. I want to know how we are being protected in terms of the copyright laws, the patent laws, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and, in particular, that negative services list. It is up to the government now to make public the negotiating text.

Question agreed to.