TPP should be ratified in Australia: Treaties Committee

Despite copyright concerns and the improbability of President-elect Donald Trump allowing the trade agreement to pass into law, Australia should still ratify the TPP, the Treaties Committee has said.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) should be ratified in Australia despite concerns from the copyright industry, as well as the likelihood that it will be abandoned in the United States, the Treaties Committee has recommended to the federal government.

Tabling its report [PDF] in Parliament on Wednesday morning, the Treaties Committee said the government should still take advantage of the free trade benefits with the Asia-Pacific signatories.

The TPP, signed by all 12 member states in February, was designed to regulate trade between Australia, the US, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Brunei, and Chile.

The report said that it is in the nation's interest to ratify the treaty; however, it did concede that work needs to be done to convince an increasingly "nationalist and isolationist" public of this.

"The committee is aware of the resurgence in nationalist and isolationist points of view across the globe, and the threat this represents to the benefits brought by free trade," it said.

"Addressing these views is an underlying theme in the committee's recommendations and comments throughout the report. Australia relies on the benefits of free trade for its economic and social success.

"While the committee finds the TPP to be in Australia's national interest, the committee is aware that there is much work to do to ensure that the Australian public is also convinced of this."

The committee recommended that the government be less secretive when negotiating treaties, and allow third parties and industry to be involved; allow independent analysis by the Productivity Commission or similar; pass the safe harbour provisions amendment to the Copyright Act; consider using the paperless trading provisions of the TPP and the single set of documentary procedures to measure the TPP's benefits; ensure "adequate resourcing" so as to enable participation in committees handling technical barriers to trade; and take "binding treaty action" on the TPP.

Australia's copyright industry has constantly argued against the stringent provisions in the document.

Earlier this month, submissions from Open Source Industry Australia and Law Council of Australia's Business Law Section Intellectual Property Committee recommended that the international treaty not be ratified until the problems of complexity and inconsistency are addressed in regards to intellectual property and copyright protection provisions.

The Treaties Committee's report only briefly discussed concerns about the intellectual property provisions, simply saying: "In relation to intellectual property, the TPP is consistent with Australia's current copyright and patent laws and will not require legislative change in these areas. The TPP will not require new civil remedies or criminal penalties for copyright infringement in Australia."

The Australian Digital Alliance and Copyright Advisory Group also last month argued at the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties: Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement hearing that without the more extensive safe harbour provisions under the proposed Copyright Act amendments, Australia would be in breach of its TPP obligations.

During the federal government's final public hearing on the TPP at the beginning of November, Australia's chief negotiator said that no policy would need to be changed despite Australia's laws on intellectual property in terms of safe harbour provisions being at odds with the international agreement.

"We deem that our policy settings on intellectual property are within -- we negotiated these to be within the standard of the TPP," Elizabeth Ward, the Australian government's chief negotiator for the TPP, said at the hearing.

"We will not be changing any of our legislation as a result, and at least to my knowledge we haven't received any news from the United States with regard to ISP liability."

However, the Treaties Committee said the fact that a Bill exists to add safe harbour provisions for schools and universities to the Act shows that the problem is "real" and the law must be amended.

"In Australia, a mistake was made in the amendment to the Copyright Act that included the safe harbours provision. The Copyright Act contains a safe harbour provision for 'carriage service providers' only. This means that commercial ISPs are provided safe harbour protection, but schools and universities are not," the report said.

"The problem is an Australian one. The fact that the issues raised during the inquiry in relation to safe harbours provisions has reached the stage of being addressed in a draft Bill would indicate to the committee that the problem is real. The committee recommends the Australian government progress the safe harbours amendments to the Copyright Act."

In addition to the concern of the Australian copyright industry, US abandonment of the international agreement is also likely; earlier this month, the administration of current United States President Barack Obama suspended its efforts to get the TPP through Congress following the surprise election of free trade-averse Donald Trump.

Trump, who called the TPP a "disaster" during his election campaign and said it would threaten American jobs by introducing lower-wage competition, will be in charge of the trade deal after his inauguration in January 2017, alongside the Republican-majority Congress.

"We have worked closely with Congress to resolve outstanding issues and are ready to move forward, but this is a legislative process and it's up to congressional leaders as to whether and when this moves forward," United States Trade Representative spokesman Matt McAlvanah said in a statement.

Trump had previously said he would dump the TPP, as well as renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and assume a tougher trade stance with China.

Australian Trade Minister Steve Ciobo has said that while the remaining 11 nations could still go ahead with the deal, it is unlikely to survive with the US withdrawing.

"With the United States not being part of it, first of all ... officially the TPP would not get up," Ciobo has said.

"Secondly, if we looked at, well is there still enough merit to look at a trade deal among the 11 of us, it changes the metrics substantially."

Obama's administration had warned Congress last month that not approving the TPP would risk trade rival China pushing through its own deal with APAC nations. According to Obama, this would put millions of jobs across the US at risk.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong similarly told the US Chamber of Commerce in August that the ratification of the TPP is "a litmus test of your credibility", adding that the nation will be better off with its "doors open" to trade.

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