Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement: a threat to democracy, society and the environment

By Brian Feeney

Under the guise of a proposed international trade deal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, foreign corporations could soon threaten the right of national governments to make their own laws. Australia is a member of the 12 country TPP negotiating group where national sovereignty over issues like working conditions, food labelling, healthcare and environmental protection could be exchanged for the promise of better access to overseas markets.

TPP negotiations are being held in secret, but leaked documents have revealed some of the alarming ambitions of the corporations.

TPP is anti-democratic

The TTP proposes to give foreign investors the right to sue governments for loss of potential future earnings due to government decisions (investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS). An unaccountable international tribunal would rule on these disputes, but would be obliged to give priority to investor interests over national priorities.

Australia has previously resisted the ISDS proposals in the TPP negotiations, but there are now signs the current government will not be so protective of Australia’s independence.

We’re already seeing evidence of how the ISDS could operate. Through provisions in the 1993 Australia-Hong Kong trade agreement, tobacco giant Phillip Morris Asia is suing the Australian government over the cigarette plain packaging laws introduced in 2012. ISDS provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have allowed the US oil and gas corporation Lone Pine to sue the Quebec provincial government for $250 million after the government halted shale gas production pending further environmental studies.

TPP is the MAI reincarnated   

The TPP is the latest chapter in the corporations’ push to bypass national regulations. Beginning with the MAI in 1995, there has been almost continuous pressure to water down national regulations (see timeline).

After the MAI and similar proposals in the World Trade Organisation’s ‘Millennium Round’ of negotiations were rejected following widespread NGO campaigns, the corporations began to focus on the TPP.

TPP is a risk to social and environmental standards

As well as being a threat to democracy, the TPP is potentially a danger to public health, workers’ conditions, local media content, food labelling and pollution standards. Particularly worrying for Australia is the threat to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (the PBS), which subsidises medicines. Foreign corporations could challenge the PBS, with the result that medicines become more expensive. Our relatively strict food labelling laws could also be swept away, leaving us exposed to low quality imports. It is also likely GMO ingredients in foods would not have to be labelled.

Government regulation of coal seam gas could also be challenged under the ISDS provisions of the TPP.

What’s behind the TPP?

Apart from a grab for more corporate power, the TPP is part of the larger neoliberal (economic rationalist) free trade agenda. The economic argument is that trade increases global economic output because each country focuses on what it’s best at producing. Specialisation and the resulting economies of scale increase global capacity to produce goods and services.

This narrow economic growth idea of ‘progress’ ignores the downsides of free trade and globalisation – loss of cultural diversity, rich countries dominating the terms of trade, unequal in-country distribution of any benefits accruing to developing countries, and loss of social capital and resilience. Arguably, lightly regulated international trade is a disguised form of colonialism exploiting the cheaper labour of the Third World, and impoverishing First World workers at the same time.

What can we do?

It’s not too late to add your voice to those opposing the TPP. Growing opposition in the US Congress is an indication that the tide is turning against the TPP.

What we can do:

  • Find out more – see Resources below
  • Support the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network’s campaign (first link below)
  • Write a (paper) letter to your Federal elected representatives (this is much more likely to get his/her attention than an email)
  • Write to your local media
  • Call talk-back radio and get your voice heard

 The following links are to articles on the TPP:

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