The free trade deal has been given new impetus at today’s APEC meeting, in Hawaii, with United States President, Barak Obama, saying he wants to see a text for an agreement finished in 2012 and by Japan’s decision to join the talks.

At this stage, no Pacific Island nations are part of the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership but the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network, says there may well be unexpected flow-on effects.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett

Speaker: Dr Patricia Ranald, Convenor Australian Fair Trade Network

GARRETT: With Japan joining the existing 9 Trans-Pacific Partnership countries, any agreement would represent an economic powerhouse with one third of the world’s Gross Domestic Product.

So far there have been nine rounds of negotiations.

In the past 2 months the United States put forward an ambitious set of demands that has non-government organisations in Australia worried.

The Australian Fair Trade Network represents 60 community organisations.

Dr Patricia Ranald is its Convenor.

RANALD: The US wants to increase the intellectual property rights of pharmaceutical companies so basically this means they can charge higher prices for medicines, for longer. The second thing they want to do is they want to replace some the restrictions on the ability of governments to regulate the prices of medicines. And the third thing they want to do is give corpoartions, a single corporation, the right to sue governments for damages, if a law harms the investment of that company. Now, taken together, these could have a very negative effect on the price of medicines in Australia and they expand the rights of pharmaceutical companies, at the expense of consumers. The right of a single corporation to sue governments, is something that we kept out of the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement. It is being put again in the TPP, and the example we have of the harm that that can do is that Philip Morris tabacco company is currently attempting to sue the Australian government over its plain packaging legislation. Now, Philip Morris is a US company. It couldn’t sue us under the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement because it doesn’t have that provision but it has rearranged its assets and it is calling itself a Hong Kong company and it is using an obscure Australia-Hong Kong bi-lateral investment treaty which was made in 1993.

GARRETT: No Pacific Island countries are currently involved in talks for a Trans Pacific Partnership but Dr Ranald says that does not mean that they will not be affected.

RANALD: Indirectly, the Pacific Islands could be affected because if this kind of agreement is set as the standard in the Asia-Pacific, which gives more intellectual property rights to pharmaceutical companies, reduces the ability of governments to regulate the price of medicines, then that means that sort of standard could emerge as something that is pushed for instance in PACER plus. Now, we hope that is not the case but the danger is that this sort of US-style regulation if its established in the Asia-Pacific, then can be used as a wider standard for other trade agreements.

GARRETT: As the only Pacific Island member of the APEC grouping Papua New Guinea is the most likely candidate to consider joining the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Dr Ranald says that would not be in PNG’s interests.

RANALD: Papua New Guinea is a developing country. It would be opening itself up to restrictions on its ability to regulate the price of medicines and the proposal about the ability of a single corporation to sure governments could be very dangerous to PNG given all the mining projects. If you look at all the kinds of cases that US companies have taken under this provision, often they involve mining companies and environmental provisions or mining companies and disputes over indigenous land rights.

GARRETT: There has been some cynicism over why President Barak Obama is showing new interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership now. What do you put that down to?

RANALD: Well, I think all along there have been two motivations. One is that the US wants to get a legally binding trade agreement on its terms in the Asia-Pacific, to get gtreater access to Asia-Pacific markets. The second issue is rivalry with China in the region. Both of those things are driving the US agenda and they’ve been quite open about that from the beginning. What Australia and the Pacific Islands and other countries have to consider is whether a US-style legally binding agreement, especially one with these sorts of provisions on medicines and corporate rights, whether that is in the interests of Australia or other countries in the region.

GARRETT: President Obama has said he wants to see a text for the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2012. Do you think that is realistic?

RANALD: Well, I think that the negotiations will proceed in 2012 but I think if the US persists with these extreme demands in the area of medicines, for example, then there will be a number of countries that will find it very difficult to agree to them, not just Australia, Peru, New Zealand, a number of other countries, have signalled that they do not want to agree to these sorts of provisions.

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