Senate debates

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Questions without Notice: Take Note of Answers


3:33 pm

Photo of Peter Whish-WilsonPeter Whish-Wilson (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance (Senator Cormann) to a question without notice asked by Senator Whish-Wilson today relating to free trade agreements.

'If we want honesty in Australian politics, we need transparency in parliament'. These are not my words; these are words that I listened to in this chamber last week from Senator Sinodinos when we were talking about the debt ceiling and policy around that. They are sentiments that I wholeheartedly agree with, and I certainly know that my party and most people in this chamber would agree with this.

I was quite interested in whether Senator Cormann might have made similar comments in this chamber over the years, so I just did a quick search and I found one quote which was interesting:

Openness and transparency is in the national interest. Openness and transparency makes for better government. Secretive government, like we are getting from this government, makes for bad government.

That was from 5 July 2011. I found it on Hansard. I am sure there are lots of other quotes there from the senator talking about the importance of transparency and getting rid of secrecy.

It seems to be an important issue except where it relates to free trade deals. Why are trade deals sacrosanct? Why is this so important to this government if they are so important for our national interest? If this is the biggest free trade deal the country has ever faced—the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, with 29 chapters that cover every aspect not only of our economy but also of our community and our environment—why is it being conducted in secret?

That is the really simple question that I get asked by journalists all the time, and it is really hard to answer. Why the secrecy? I understand there is probably some expediency in doing things behind closed doors and getting things done. It has taken nearly four years to get to this point. So the Senate compelled the government last week to release the final draft, and I thank Labor for supporting the Greens to take this measure so that this draft could be seen by the Australian people prior to it being signed by cabinet.

This is a situation that I understand the US are also looking at. But why is it that we demand transparency—tri-partisan, including the Independents—except that it is okay for free trade deals to be done in secret and the details not given to the Australian people?

Senator Cormann said that he would not ignore the advice of Treasury in his response to me today. Well here it is; here is the advice from the blue book direct to the coalition government, warning them against investor-state dispute clauses and the importance of maintaining flexibility in policy and maintaining our national sovereignty.

ISDS—investor-state dispute settlement provisions—have been in previous free trade agreements. But note that with the TPPA, out of the 29 chapters only five relate directly to traditional trade—the 'trade' that most students of economics would understand means trade. The TPPA covers an enormous array of issues, including things such as intellectual property, the use of the internet, environmental laws, investment policy—things that we have never seen in free trade deals before; things that directly impact the lives of Australians and us here in government, particularly in relation to our policies and our ability to be flexible and legislate in the national interest.

It was good to see some of the National Party's senators firing up during question time when I mentioned ADM, who recently had their bid for GrainCorp knocked back in terms of national interest. National interest is a strange cat—we are not sure exactly how these decisions are made or why they are made; they are at the discretion of the Treasurer. But there is no doubt we need the ability in this country to make decisions in our national interest, with the best information available, and not to have what is called 'regulatory chilling' or the fear of regulatory chilling, where big corporations can sue us and sue the Australian taxpayer, potentially for billions of dollars, over a decision such as we saw with ADM.

We are facing significant risks of losing our access to cheap medicines under this TPPA. Recently in Singapore we saw breakout groups form, which suggested to many commentators that the Australian government or negotiators were already going weak on our previous positions around ISDS and the PBS. ISDS is not what we want in this country. We need to ban it from future free trade deals. We need to be very careful about not giving powers to corporations over governments. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.