Applaud the collapse of the Trans Pacific Partnership


Map of TPP countries

Last week the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) sank without trace when delegates in Singapore could not reach agreement. And it is likely to stay sunk, at least in the intermediate term.

Ordinarily we might lament the failure to reach international agreements. Free trade is a benefit when it serves the common good, especially that of the most vulnerable. But the failure of the TPP is a cause for great joy. It was heralded as an agreement to liberalise trade and as a bulwark against China. In fact it was not about free trade, nor was the process by which it would have been carried through a proper one.

Most of the arguments made in Australia against the TPP attacked its economic value. Critics pointed out that previous bilateral trade agreements, particularly the 2005 agreement with the US, diminished trade and resulted in a net economic loss to Australia, particularly by raising the cost of pharmaceuticals.

Sugar producers, especially, complained that the TPP did not offer fair access to the United States market. Others protested that the provisions for pharmaceuticals further protected United States companies. When Australian negotiators could not win concessions on these points, the TPP was doomed in the Australian Senate. So the Australian delegation withdrew.

But this and other trade agreements are not objectionable simply because they bring no gain to Australia. Their deeper defect lies in the process by which they are negotiated. They are represented as trade agreements. In fact they produce a legislative web that limits the freedom of governments to pursue social and environmental goals in their ordering of society.

Such legislative changes should be discussed fully in the community by all sectors of society, and also be subject to detailed study and amendment by Parliament. Those representing the nation in international negotiations should be economically literate, but also socially alert.

Because these agreements are presented as about trade, those taking part in the negotiations look solely to economic criteria. Their natural conversation partners in forming their position are representatives of large businesses and orthodox economists. Non-government organisations and the community sector are not involved. So inevitably a restricted view of the national good will emerge.

This restricted voice is narrowed further because the negotiations between nations are conducted in secrecy. As a result when an agreement is shaped, its effects on social, environmental and human policy have not been analysed and discussed. The massive document containing the provisions of the agreement is presented to Parliament, which is free to accept or reject the agreement, but not amend it.

Mercifully the TPP had to make its way through an independent and hostile Senate in both the United States and Australia. Without prospect of doing so, it was aborted. But in other circumstances it may have become law.

The kind of legislation that results when the national interest is made subject to commercial interests can be seen best in the provisions for settling disputes between investors and states.

These make it possible for overseas investors to sue a government for losses incurred when it regulates an industry in the national interest. The case will be heard in secret proceedings before a panel and decided on commercial grounds in another nation.

By virtue of having signed such an agreement with Hong Kong, Australia is now being sued by Philip Morris for its legislation on the plain packaging of tobacco. So in this case a trade agreement, made without respect for other than economic considerations, can inhibit a government from acting to protect the health of its citizens.

An even more egregious example of the way in which the interest of human beings is subjugated in the interest of commercial profit can be studied in El Salvador, where a goldmine that risks the local environment and those living in it, is affected by a multilateral agreement. The Government is being sued for much of its annual budget by an overseas company.

The TPP was praised as a diplomatic and strategic agreement that would neutralise Chinese ambitions. That is another strong reason for applauding its collapse. If we are building a peaceful Pacific rim, how can agreements designed to exclude China foster that goal? And how can the protectionist provisions that betray the common good in the name of sectional profit conduce to peace?

Certainly, the relationship with China is too important to be shaped in secret in a trade forum.

Signing regional agreements makes national leaders look good. So it is important that Parliament examines their schemes with a fishlike gaze. We are fortunate now to have an intractable Senate, not controlled by the Government of the day, in which the common good can be kept in mind.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is a consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Trans Pacific Partnership, China



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Existing comments

What confounds me is why politicians allow themselves to be hobbled by these agreements. Given, as Andrew points out, that they actually restrict a government’s ability to legislate for the common good, why do they do it, what motivates politicians negotiating these treaties? Is it that they have a disjointed understanding of what the common good is? Or is it that they cynically govern for a select few rather than the nation as a whole? Do they simply relish a few moments in the international spotlight? What does drive them?
Paul | 07 August 2015

Interesting how our pollies, especially those from the neoconservative side of politics, are quite happy to surrender sovereignty in trade treaties, but not in those related to international boundaries, rights of refugees, or conservation of the environment.
Ginger Meggs | 07 August 2015

TPP, TTIP, CETA & other Global Treaties/”Arrangements’; ‘The Three Card Monte’. How long have Global Corporate Associates been ‘Passing’ Legislation in Anticipation of Suing Once Ratified? ‘Trickle’ Up & Out Economics. TPP & Global Corporate Treaties/’Arrangements Not about How Much Trade & more about Preferred Trading Partners & more about Tort ‘Abolishment’ than Tort ‘Reform’? *** FULL Article, see;
David E.H. Smith | 08 August 2015

My father fought in WWII so that we could a decent life and make our own rules to look after our fellow citizens with Health Care, Environmental Law and Banking, and more. Australians have always liked to give each other a "fair go". Americans (where I lived for some 5 years) have money foremost in their minds. The American Munro Doctrine and similar have conditioned American minds to think of constant expansion and taking over the world, either through commerce, or war. Simply - money is made by humans. "Quantitative Easing" is just printing money. Large American and British Banks use some of this created money to buy our Electrical Systems, and other vital Infrastructure for peanuts. The attached chart shows that approximately 40% of our companies are owned by overseas banks. Australian Politicians are supposed to work for Australians - not foreign interests. And we are supposed to be making a more beautiful world - not one controlled by corporations, who only have one idea in mind - to make more profits and more money. Many of us are asking the questions “What does it take to: • Create a world where people live in dignity, are creative and happy? • Ensure all of us are warm and fed with clean water and clean food? • Turn weapons into ploughs? • Make a beautiful world for all? Agreeing to Corporate control of Australia is not going to help make a better world. Many say that controlling the Banks, Monsanto, Frackers and protecting our seeds, water and creating a banking system that works for all will help us enjoy our lives. Politicians, please reject the TPP, for all of us that pay your salaries, and rely on you to protect our borders. The Graph “Australian Ownership” is here:
Clement Clarke | 09 August 2015

Thank you, Andrew, for explaining so clearly why I felt uneasy about the TPP and the apparent lack of public discussion about it.
Catherine Greenley | 10 August 2015

Hi Andrew, thanks for engaging with trade agreements. Future generations are inheriting an extremely constrained form of democracy if it can be called that at all. It's something I care about a lot, and have felt kind of paralysed by for several years (I used to campaign about this stuff when an undergraduate). I hope we can find a way to confront these agreements in such a way that we are not relying on their own internal contradictions and overreaches to limit them! It is a worry that so many agreements have been signed that contain the investor-state provisions [corporations suing governments clause]. When Australia excluded investor-state clauses from the US -Australia free trade agreement it was the first time this had been achieved in a bilateral deal, and other countries such as Costa Rica then demanded the same of the US for bilateral deals (a demand that scuttled their bilateral agreement). These agreements are like the Hydra. When one gets defeated, another grows in its place, requiring eternal vigilance. What once was GATS, the services agreement with a ratchet mechanism locking in government service privatisation and equal subsidies to public and private providers [which went down with the WTO] is now re-growing as the TISA. And even those agreements that don't have investor state provisions often have state-state courts, and the US trade department is quite willing to prosecute on behalf of their corporations for any new law or nationalisation etc. Anyway, good to read this :)
Anne O'Brien | 10 August 2015

Thanks Andrew. Where would we be without people like you who can simply explain the implications behind the headlines and glib explanations constantly put before us? thanks for helping me to keep thinking and enquiring and acting where possible.
Jeff Regan | 10 August 2015

Andrew Thanks! What we need now is a law in our Federal Parliament which makes treasonous (and null and void) any such secretive agreements which sign away our national sovereignty. Those promulgating the agreements to serve time in gaol - foreign companies (already many failing to pay due taxes anyway) denied trade in our land. Seems fair! I especially liked your point about China - and the way in which our national government of both major hues is permitting the north and western encirclement of our land by US military bases causes me great concern! That, too, must cease - now!
Jim KABLE | 10 August 2015

Thank you for this excellent analysis of the flaws in the process to date and the presentation of criteria that should be followed in a future negotiations. I intend to send it to the Opposition Foreign Affairs critic in Canada, where we are now in the midst of an election.
Marianne McLean | 10 August 2015

Thank you, Fr Hamilton, for your lucid exposé of the recent so-called “trade” agreement. I am pleased to hear of the failure – at least for now – of this exercise, but above all I am delighted to see the implications: we have been rescued yet again from the mindless pursuit of corporate ambition. When we examine the process, we see a lack of transparency, very narrow consultation, and a dominant worldview that overlooks the long-term future of our country, based as we are in Asia not Europe or America. The question that has dominated my thinking during this particular “consultation” has been the capability of our representative in such discussions. Does the Minister really have the understanding and the wisdom to sign the document, had it been passed? No matter how good the current Minister might be, his ideas need the benefit of wide exposure and mature critique. We need frank and open discussion among all of our elected representatives, and the people they represent, freed from the pettiness currently destroying our Federal Parliament. We have won this round, but can we be assured that future Ministers will allow us to repeat this victory?
Dennis Sleigh | 10 August 2015

Am I naive in seeing seeds of hope springing up, seeds of hope for the future of our democratic process? Not just the intractability of the Senate, but the involvement of the Church in a proper way, voicing opinions formed by a commitment to human respect and human flourishing. Andrew's article on the TPP; the prospect of a civil and rational debate on euthanasia between Professor Singer and the Archbishop of Sydney; younger Federal MPs publicly horrified by the state of Parliament - maybe all is not lost?
Joan Seymour | 10 August 2015

Thank you Father Hamilton for your wise words once again.I agree wholeheartedly. A time to rejoice, and so welcome when our economy has rarely been so wretched! So many global economic and ecological disasters being perpetuated by those with money and power had led so many of us to expect the worst. The common good is what it's all about. :)
Annabel | 10 August 2015

An enlightening article. These trade agreements, conducted in the utmost secrecy, which must be accepted in toto or not at all are very dangerous. The ability of commercial organisations to seek financial remedies against sovereign governments outside the countries' legal systems in secret proceedings before a panel is diabolical.
Edward Fido | 11 August 2015

Thank You Andrew, BRAVO BRAVO-Thank God for some common sense!
Gavin O'Brien | 11 August 2015

Fr Andrew has covered this topic of TPP well. The horror of greedy big business in USA & elsewhere dictating our public policy & so torpedoeing a fairer Australia, plus our sovereign rights, was averted for a time. Trade Minister Andrew Robb and PM Abbott let Australia down badly by being led along by the nose on TPP.
John Cronin, Toowoomba | 12 August 2015


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