Most Australians have never heard of the ‘Trans-Pacific Partnership’ (TPP), yet this far-reaching economic-policy agreement is a significant threat to workers and poor people’s living standards in the Asia-Pacific region. It must be opposed by working people internationally.
The TPP made headlines in December 2013 when it became clear that President Obama’s end-of-year deadline would not be met – for the second year in row. In November, the headlines were about how far some neoliberal proposals went, following the publication of drafts by WikiLeaks.
Unprecedented levels of secrecy surround the negotiations. In December, the Abbott Government even ruled out allowing public scrutiny before the text would be signed into law. At the same time, lead negotiators provided 600 big-business lobbyists full access to drafts!
The TPP started as a 2005 agreement between Chile, New Zealand, Singapore and Brunei. In 2010 the US ‘took over’ formal negotiations for an expanded TPP. US trade officials estimate that exports would increase by $US124 billion per year by 2025 under the TPP.
The agreement now includes the original signatories plus Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada and Japan. That it excludes the European Union and China indicates the importance of the sharpening US-China relations that contextualise the TPP.
The TPP extends beyond trade issues such as tariffs that are normally the focus of such multilateral agreements. In the chapter on ‘intellectual property’ (IP), for example, the US has attempted to impose exceptional new rules – extending copyrights beyond the current 70 years of legal protection, criminalising file-sharing and requiring internet-service providers (ISPs) to surveil customers, as well as preventing the use of generic medicines. The direct cost of the latter alone will be counted in millions of lives lost.
The US’s agenda is driven by the increasing importance of IP to US profits. The TPP is an attempt to re-introduce the Motion Picture Association’s favoured Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) by the backdoor. These were recently defeated by a growing world-wide campaign.
In December, US industry publication Washington Trade Daily cited ‘participants familiar with proceedings’ as saying that all countries bar one had eventually dropped opposition to this chapter – and the official debate had shifted to how long a ‘transition period’ would be for developing countries. According to Forbes magazine ‘Australia in particular has been standing firm’ on this issue, reportedly to gain US agricultural concessions.
Another key proposal of the TPP would establish a tribunal to regulate disputes between companies and countries, locking neoliberalism into enforceable international law. A corporation could then essentially sue a state for laws that undermine its profits if they violate the TPP. Such measures are unpopular, with a December 2012 poll finding 64% of New Zealanders opposed such a realignment of state and corporate power. People instinctively recognise that increased corporate power comes at the expense of working people’s ability to fight for reforms.
Proceedings have stumbled on heavy-handed US negotiating tactics, plus US and Japanese intransigence on reducing agricultural market barriers. Malaysia and Vietnam, where State Owned Enterprises represent nearly half of total stock market capitalisation, have also resisted attempts to break up State Owned Enterprises. Negotiations start again in January.
Drawing on the SOPA and ACTA campaigns, as well as the ‘anti-globalisation’ protests, it is clear that only mass opposition can kill the TPP permanently. While mass movements can be built by individuals and community organisations this process could be accelerated by the political intervention of trade unions. The TPP would after all dramatically accelerate the ‘race to bottom’ in labour, environmental and safety regulations.
This is why it is urgent that both unions and community organisations combine to build a political alternative to the big business parties behind this deal – on a national and international scale.
By W. van Leeuwen