As governments and corporations push to finalise negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP), people who support wide participation in policy development should increase the pressure for open discussion.
Relegating the TPP to a “special interest” issue for online activists is a success for secrecy. Opposition to the TPP is actually in the broader interest of individuals and organisations working in health, education, human rights, journalism, ecology, welfare, workers rights and other related areas.
Its stated goals are “economic integration” and increasing “market access” but the TPP deal covers far more than trade. There are sections on labour, the environment, e-commerce, intellectual property, foreign investment, financial services, telecommunications, Investor State Dispute Settlement and more. The treaty prescribes how member states will legislate in these areas.
Negotiations started in 2010 and there is pressure to finalise the text as soon as possible. The 2013 deadline was missed this week and negotiations have been extended into January.
Only a handful of representatives from each member state are allowed access to the negotiation text. No one else, not even elected representatives outside of the negotiation team, are allowed to know what’s on the table. The negotiations themselves are “off the record”, though roughly 700 lobbyists (“advisors“), mostly representing corporate interests, do have access.
Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have spoken out demanding public scrutiny of public policy, signing petitions and attending protests.
Last week, Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson successfully passed a motion requesting the final treaty text be made available to the public “well before it is signed.” Since then, the Senate’s request has been refused by the Coalition who say its release would “damage Australia’s standing”.
Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz made a damning assessment of secrecy in democracies for his 1999 Oxford Amnesty Lecture:
“Meaningful participation in democratic processes requires informed participants. Secrecy reduces the information available to the citizenry, hobbling their ability to participate meaningfully… voters have to be informed: they have to know what alternative actions were available, and what the results might have been.”
As far as the TPP is concerned, US trade representative Ron Kirk says secrecy from the public is needed to “preserve negotiating strength and to encourage our partners to be willing to put issues on the table they may not otherwise”.
Stiglitz addresses this position:
“The argument that public discussions — including discussions of uncertainties and mistakes — will undermine the authority of public institutions is one of the most corrosive of democratic processes. It is akin to the kinds of arguments that authoritarian regimes conventionally use. I would argue, on the contrary, that were governments to deal honestly with their citizenry, confidence in government and public institutions would increase, not decrease.”
Unfortunately, in our society, arguments for secrecy are commonplace. Immigration and asylum seeker policy, locked down under Operation Sovereign Borders, is just the most recent example of a situation where basic information must be smuggled out, so the public can see the detail of policies enacted on their behalf.
Another common defence of the TPP’s secrecy is that “this is just the usual process for trade agreements” and that negotiators are conducting private consultations, in which affected stakeholders (public interest advocates in addition to the lobbyists) can voice concerns.
Instead, as Stiglitz says, the real effect is that “the quality of decision making is thereby weakened… With more mistakes, public officials become more defensive; to protect themselves, they seek even more secrecy, narrowing in the circle still further, eroding still further the quality of decision-making.”
Public Health Lecturer Deborah Gleeson points out that, “since those being consulted don’t have much information about what’s in the agreement and aren’t permitted to view the text, meaningful input is difficult. Indeed, it’s farcical to be consulted about the details of text you haven’t seen!”
On 6 December Stiglitz published an open letter to TPP negotiators criticising the secretive nature of the negotiations, he warned that “The TPP proposes to freeze into a binding trade agreement many of the worst features of the worst laws in the TPP countries, making needed reforms extremely difficult if not impossible.”
On 13 November Wikileaks published the Intellectual Property (Rights) Chapter of the agreement, this is the secret draft negotiation text with annotations for the positions of nations on individual clauses. For the first time, we can see what is on the table and the stance our representatives are taking.
The leaked negotiation text includes clauses to expand the scope of patents to cover medical procedures, force your ISP to police your internet usage, and increase opportunities for multi-nationals to sue governments through investor-state dispute settlements. This is just the intellectual property chapter — the rest of the agreement remains in the dark.
Since the leak, Australia’s Trade Minister Andrew Robb has said “the Government will not permit any outcome in its trade negotiations which undermines the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or Australia’s health system more generally.” However, regardless of Robb’s claims, Australia will be held to the ratified text of the TPP and in its current form it would raise the price of medicine by slowing the process to generic manufacturing.
In these negotiations — where the biggest economy in the world is playing hard-ball —how does it help our bargaining power for all negotiations to be secret? If you were really concerned with the public interest, wouldn’t you want the public there to back you up?
It proves the vital relevance of people like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Jeremy Hammond, and of Wikileaks, that the only way we could discover the deals being made on our behalf is by concerned people on the inside passing us information.
Many are already speaking out against the contempt for participatory democracy visible in the TPP negotiations. Doctors Without Borders have long recognised the effect the TPP will have on the lives of people they work with. A new website has launched with suggestions for what you can do.
Everybody has a role in opposing this attack on the public interest — even something small broadens the group involved. Support whistleblowers who risk everything so that we can know what’s going on; demand a say in the direction our laws drive us. Already the public outcry has prompted someone brave on the inside to pass out the crucial draft chapter.