The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks have been called into question by Australia's refusal to budge on conditions that could provide US businesses with greater legal powers over Australian businesses.
The TPP is a free trade agreement that has the aim of removing trade obstacles, such as tariffs and import quotas, to support open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region. The agreement is currently in force between Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, but Australia, Malaysia, Peru, Japan, the US and Vietnam are currently in negotiations to join the group. Discussions were held on the partnership last week.
The TPP has been seen by some as being akin to the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), due to controversial provisions in its intellectual property chapter .
Pirate Party Australia president David Campbell, for example, outlined the party's concerns at a presentation to TPP stakeholders in Melbourne earlier this month. According to Campbell, TPP, as it stands, would ban parallel imports and potentially put Australians at further risk of being subject to an "Australia tax".
He said that provisions relating to copy protection could also deny Australian citizens the ability to use their purchased media as they wish.
"If they purchase a new iPod, for example, they can no longer access their music collection on their new device, and would need to re-licence all of their music."
Foreign companies would also be able to demand personal information of Australians from local internet service providers (ISPs), Campbell said, merely by accusing a customer of illegal activity.
The part of the partnership that could provide foreign companies with greater rights than domestic companies, and even domestic law-enforcement agencies, is the investor-state dispute provisions, which are championed by the US.
"US negotiators have been working hard to get a deal that would allow a foreign company to sue an Australian government because an Australian law reduces their profits or adversely affects their business," Australian Greens deputy leader, Senator Christine Milne, said in a statement yesterday.
During question time in the Senate yesterday, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy stated that the government would not back down from its stance established last year to discontinue the practice of including investor-state dispute-settlement provisions in trade agreements.
The government has previously stated that it "does not support provisions that would confer greater legal rights on foreign businesses than those available to domestic businesses. Nor will the government support provisions that would constrain the ability of Australian governments to make laws on social, environmental and economic matters in circumstances where those laws do not discriminate between domestic and foreign businesses".
Milne suggested that since this is a central issue, Australia should pull out of the negotiations with the US on TPP, as there would be nothing further to discuss, especially given the various other sticking points of the partnership.
"If Australia sticks to its position to protect the [pharmaceutical benefits scheme], local content rules, copyright and patent laws, what is it still talking to the US about?"
Senator Stephen Conroy said in question time that he isn't in the position to opine over whether the agreement will now fall over, adding that discussions are still taking place. The next round is understood to be taking place in May.
Milne also raised issues about the lack of information available on the negotiations. Concerns such as Campbell's have only been raised as a result of documents being leaked.
"Rumour has it that the services sector is the most vulnerable, but nobody knows, because there is no transparency in the negotiations. While the government is holding forums, the negotiating texts and positions are being kept secret from Australians, whilst the 600 US lobbyists all have them," Milne said.
"The [TPP] is a step in the wrong direction, and the government must release details of what it is prepared to trade away."
At the time that SOPA was being debated in the US, which ultimately saw its postponement, the attorney-general's office stated that Australia would not see similar legislation.