Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on Wednesday, 4 December 2013.
Next week trade ministers will meet in Singapore in an attempt to finalise negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).
The TPP is a critical test for new Trade Minister Andrew Robb and will demonstrate whether he can deliver a deal with real benefits to Australia’s economy.
Labor recognises that reducing barriers to trade can boost our economic growth, create more competitive industries and give consumers access to a wider range of goods and services at lower prices.
The pursuit of these objectives drives Labor’s support for a more open global trading system.
Labor’s achievements in office include the establishment of the Cairns Group as a vehicle to promote our interests in multilateral trade negotiations, and the establishment of the Asia Pacific Co-operation Forum to strengthen our economic and political ties with the region.
The former Labor government placed the “Asian century” at the centre of the national debate and opposed protectionist responses to the global financial crisis both at home and abroad.
Labor had an ambitious agenda for trade and investment in office, and will maintain this approach in opposition.
Our assessment of the government’s trade performance will be informed by a clear-sighted assessment of the national interest.
Twelve countries, which account for 40 per cent of global GDP, are party to the TPP talks. The potential benefits for Australia include market access for our goods and services in countries with which we do not have an existing FTA. Real regulatory reform and lower “behind border” trade barriers will be key issues. The TPP could also be an important stepping stone to closer economic engagement across the Asia-Pacific region.
The test for the government in TPP – and all other trade – negotiations is ensuring Australia’s national interest is never traded away.
It would not be in the national interest for Australia to sign up to the TPP if it undermined the integrity of the pharmaceutical benefits scheme or affected the ability of Australians to access affordable medicine.
Nor would it be in the national interest for the government to sign up to the TPP if it mandated a radical shift in the legal balance between creators and users of protected works.
Because the outcome of trade negotiations can have both far-reaching and long-lasting consequences, the government should not sign up to a TPP deal that constrains the ability of future governments to make laws on social, environmental and economic matters where those laws treat domestic and foreign businesses equally.
The risks that the Productivity Commission has previously identified from Investor State Dispute Settlement clauses cannot be ignored in the pursuit of an “announceable” from next week’s ministerial meeting.
There is a national interest in the government providing the transparency that enables Australians to understand what trade agreements mean, what benefits they bring, and what compromises we are being asked to make, and the TPP is no exception.
Labor believes the full text of any proposed TPP should be released well before it is signed. That is the commitment the United States trade representative has given to Congress, and the Australian Parliament and people are entitled to no less.
The outcome of the TPP talks will be an early demonstration of whether the Government can achieve trade reform without trading off our national interest.
With the approaching self-imposed deadline for concluding FTA negotiations with China, it won’t be the only test in the government’s first year.
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