By Christian Edwards
SYDNEY, Sept. 4 (Xinhua) -- In the "cloak and dagger" tradition of Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) discussions, it has now been four days since the latest round of negotiations opened in Hanoi, with no word from senior negotiators on the progress of what is the world's most important free trade agreement -- and its most opaque. According to a Japanese government source, senior officials from the 12 countries involved in the TPP negotiations from across the Pacific Rim gathered with typical discretion to hammer out the many sticking points that, along with a lack of transparency, plague the ambitious project.
Behind closed doors
Trade negotiations in a globalized world are fraught with tension, often undertaken behind closed doors in the most clandestine of processes -- processes justified to the wider public on grounds of national interest and, naturally, that the various governments'positions would be weakened if the information became public.
But when trade agreements increasingly seek to unravel, tinker, or take away from normative regulatory standards -- standards that would otherwise be determined through public, democratic and, or parliamentary processes -- then the justification to hide behind secretive systems like those of the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) loses all credibility.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership
The TPP negotiations involve the U.S., Australia and 10 other Pacific Rim governments, six of which already have bilateral trade agreements with the U.S. There have been more than 20 rounds of negotiations held over almost four years across the globe and the potential GDP of the combined members sits at 27.75 trillion U.S. dollars as of last year, representing 37.5 percent of global GDP.
According to Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the TPP is "one possible pathway toward realizing the vision of a free trade area of the Asia-Pacific."
Yet, clearly here the U.S. is driving the TPP agenda, and, beyond economic hegemony, its objectives are not limited to basic trade across goods or services and include subversive objectives that would not make welcome reading, were they to become public.
Hidden within the infrastructure of the TPP is the nuts and bolts of a machine that can establish a U.S.-style regional regulatory framework according to the needs and indeed whims of its major export industries -- industries that commit millions to election funds aimed at securing preferential outcomes.
The major players are a list of industries that stand to benefit the most and include U.S. pharmaceutical giants, trans- national media, American information technology businesses, the mid-west's highly-subsidized agribusiness and, naturally, the financial services industries that have made a habit of carving up whatever economic pies land on their table.
In cahoots with the government, these powerful players are lobbying hard, inside and out of Washington, to garner changes to other governments'domestic regulation.
Informed sources on the matter have suggested that this so- called "architecture for a 21st century trade agreement" is most obviously designed to meet U.S. economic and strategic interests, couched in the language of solidarity but no less detrimental to the interests of other countries, be they in or out of the TPP itself.
Dancing and dealing behind closed doors
The fact remains that the TPP negotiations are secretly undermining domestic policies for many countries both involved directly and on the sidelines, which would otherwise be concluded by public and parliamentary debate, debate in the media, national discussion and often put to a vote.
Intrinsic national interest has seen some governments come out in resistance to many of the core U.S. proposals, exemplified in 2013 when a leaked version of the Intellectual Property Chapter became public knowledge. The charter blatantly ensures that all other members are dancing to an American tune.
Cost of medicine
The charter reveals harsher patents and, controversially for Australia, higher prices for medicine.
According to the influential Australian Medical Association ( AMA), Australia"must reject provisions in the controversial Trans- Pacific Partnership Agreement that could compromise the ability of governments to improve public health."
As the secretive negotiations drag on, the AMA has consistently voiced fears that the proposed trade deal is out of balance and potentially advances the commercial interests of the U.S. industry at the expense of Australian patients'health.
Last week, the AMA Federal Council called on the Federal Government to reject "any provisions in trade agreements that could reduce Australia's right to develop health policy and programs according to need."
The association said it was concerned that aspects of the proposed TPP could be used to attack key health policies and measures including the PBS and the cost of medicine, food labeling and tobacco control laws, restrictions on alcohol marketing, the operation of public hospitals and the regulation of environmental hazards.
The TPP "Trojan Horse"
Not only could the TPP impede a nation's ability to determine local content in the media, there are now fears that foreign investors could be empowered to sue governments over domestic regulatory issues spanning health, security and even domestic environmental policy, via the deal's Trojan Horse, namely the Investor-state Dispute Settlements (ISDS).
Calls are become more vociferous for the TPP to adhere to a stronger process of transparency.
While the TPP has volunteered limited consultation in a laboratory-style controlled environment, it is grotesquely limited by a lack of access to the text.
Now that the deal is entering the final stages, this practice of limited consultation has ceased altogether.
Dr. Patricia Ranald is a Research Associate at the University of Sydney and voluntary convenor for the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET).
She said, in Australia, negotiators have briefed civil society organizations twice a year, and have also been available for separate meetings on particular topics.
"But they cannot reveal the detail of what is in the text. Most detailed information has come from leaked documents, industry media and specialized trade media reports," Ranald said.
"In the U.S., trade advisory committees permit 600 corporate advisers and a very small number of other non-government organizations to have more access to the details of the text, but they are sworn to secrecy,"she added.
Australia in step
Australia's Trade Minister Andrew Robb in between hammering out FTA's with Japan, South Korea, and the jewel in the crown, China, indicated in November 2013 that the Australian government would oppose any provisions used to force local consumers to cough up more dollars for less medicine. However, the coalition government of Tony Abbott has indicated it will accept an Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause, subject to exclusions for Australia.
Hopes to conclude the deal by the middle of 2014 were dashed when the U.S. Congress opted not to renew President Barack Obama' s trade negotiation authority. It's unlikely, given the implacable atmosphere in Washington, that there will be a Congressional vote on the TPP before the mid-term elections in November, effectively halting progress on the TPP until early 2015.
Time for change
This gives negotiators more than enough time to resolve to provide the very minimum requirements for a sovereign, democratic public policy process to be employed.
It is time for TPP negotiators to agree to provide the text of the TPP for public and parliamentary discussion and digestion before anything is signed.
Anger over the TPP would at the least be alleviated by removing the veil of secrecy surrounding the TPP negotiation process.
Without such changes, the Trans-Pacific Partnership will come to fruition at the expense of Trans-Pacific Trust.