Speech in Parliament on the Trans Pacific Partnership

2.18pm | November 30, 2016

More than a week ago Labor made the public observation that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead. We did so on the back of the very public statements by President-elect Trump that he remains opposed to the trade deal. That was more than a week ago, but only today the Greens political party have decided to raise this in the Senate. Nonetheless, it probably is an occasion to again give some indication about how we think about trade going forward.

For the TPP to come into effect it must be ratified by the United States. Given the outcome of this month's US election, Labor had written to the government asking that consideration of the TPP by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties be suspended. They have refused that request. It really is up to the government now to make clear how the TPP could progress without the participation of the United States government, and they are yet to do so. The events of the US presidential election and the consequent demise of the TPP will, of course, delay any of the trade benefits that that agreement may have delivered. But they also give us an opportunity to achieve further outcomes for Australian workers in our future trade deals.

Labor has a long record of advocacy for global trade because it builds a pathway to a high-skill highway to the future for working Australians. Our region will be home to three billion middle-class consumers by 2030, and it is not hard to see how trade with our neighbours will be essential for the future of Australian jobs. We are now looking, though, to what happens next. Labor wants to ensure that we do have a real but fair plan to engage with our region—a fair way to provide jobs, improve living standards and reduce poverty not just here but overseas, in our region and with our regional neighbours.

The TPP was not without flaws. We have consistently put pressure on the government to resolve the problems of the TPP that was. In this agreement, as with many others, Labor stood firm against the government's decision to allow companies to bring in workers from Canada, Peru, Mexico, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam without first checking if there is an Australian worker who can do that job. Our position on the TPP was always that local companies must be compelled to test the labour market before they bring in other workers. Instead, Mr Turnbull traded away those protections. He traded away those protections to six countries. He traded away what could have been many thousands of jobs.

In the course of the negotiations no other country was as generous with their reciprocal visa rights as Australia. The Labor team and I are unable to account for the concessions on this front that are offered in the TPP, unless the government's agenda was to find yet another way to undermine existing arrangements for pay and conditions. We have a consistent position on labour market testing for the TPP and for many other agreements. Our position would have provided essential support for local Australian jobs, and we will maintain our position on the need for these protections in any agreements in the future.

I want to talk too about the investor-state dispute settlement arrangements. We have consistently expressed our concern about provisions that make Australia vulnerable to legal action by foreign companies. There is a principle here: there are no benefits that flow from trade that could ever override the fundamental need for sovereign governments to uphold their ability to make laws on behalf of their citizens. We believe that parts of the TPP that dealt with ISDS arrangements created a false impression that that mechanism had no potential to affect the sovereign capacity of the Australian government—and we were not alone in this view.

In 2010 the Productivity Commission said that the Australians government should seek to avoid accepting provisions in trade agreements that confer additional substantive or procedural rights on foreign investors over and above those already provided by the Australian legal system. We have had firsthand experience of how those ISDS clauses can frustrate proper government decision making. That was, of course, in the case of tobacco packaging, which followed the enactment of a groundbreaking reform by the Labor government at the time. The case was ultimately found to be unjustified, but not before the government had spent years and literally millions of dollars fighting that case. If the tobacco company had won their case, Australia would have been faced with abandoning the plain packaging, public health initiative, or paying compensation to the complainants.

We are talking a lot in this chamber at the moment about chilling effects. My concern, which I think is a reasonable one, is that there is a very real risk that the ISDS provisions will have a chilling effect on public policy that would arise from foreign governments being able to sue the Australian government should we seek to enact measures that protect the public interest. We are concerned too about the process—not just with this trade agreement, but certainly with the TPP—because there has been significant concern about how those discussions were dealt with and how much visibility this parliament and the Australian public had.

The lack of transparency to us seemed to be excessive, particularly in the context of reports from the US which suggested that much more comprehensive briefings are available there for business and for civil society. Now, we do not call upon the government to provide a copy of every draft. We understand that a negotiation requires some level of confidential dealings between the parties. We recognise that these are practical constraints, but we do call for parliament to be able to have a more complete oversight of the negotiations—a more complete oversight about where the agreement is heading. I would say to the government that this is the way to bring the Australian public along with you. Give people a sense of where we are heading. Take people into your confidence because secret agreements without any clear direction about what is at stake and without an honest conversation about what is at stake are unlikely to gain public support.

I will say that I am a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties and we did hear evidence from business that they feel that they could have had more access to information, that in the United States the approach to consultation is not so formal. It is more informal, but it is more extensive and it is more regular, and it gives business an opportunity to provide real input to government about what measures in the treaty would really benefit them, what things would really help them in terms of their export arrangements. For anyone who is interested in how we might improve our treaty-making process, I actually commend that evidence that was provided to the committee, because it was actually very interesting.

Where are we going next? I think, following the outcome of the election in the United States, negotiations for the next round of multinational trade deals will likely look very different, but some things will not change. Labor, and the Labor team, will always fight for a fair distribution of trade benefits, and we know that there are many people who feel displaced by changes to the economy that arise, in part, from international trade. The evidence shows that, in aggregate, international trade does deliver benefits, but there is little dispute that those benefits are distributed in very unequal ways. And trade benefits, in the aggregate, often come at the cost of local communities, specific regions and specific industries as well as to individual men and women who are affected by structural change to the economy. And we will always argue for targeted adjustment that ensures that Australians are lifted up and not left behind by economic change, and we will advocate for a social safety net that means that equality in this country stays as it is, improves, that we do not have worsening inequality and increasing disenfranchisement from the political system.

As we move into the next phase of trade deals and negotiations, we will remain steadfast in our view that we will not support trade deals that lack a foundation of widespread consultation, that constrain our public services, that adversely affect international property protections or that weaken the domestic labour market in job availability and core work standards. We will not accept trade agreements that diminish environmental protections and we will not accept trade agreements that fail to take account of social as well as economic impacts. These are the standards that the Australian government ought to meet in the interests of the Australian people so that we can grow our economy in our region and deliver better jobs for Australian working men and women.