702 ABC Sydney, Interview with Linda Mottram

Subjects: Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement negotiations

Transcript, E&OE, proof only

19 February 2014

LINDA MOTTRAM: Now, if you rely on medication, it's possible you get it at a pretty affordable price because we have the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme in this country. It's expensive but it's a social policy that we think is important. So how would you be affected if those subsidies were curtailed?

Well, it's one of the issues that have been brought up consistently as 12 countries including Australia, negotiate something called the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It's a free trade agreement, still under negotiation but hauling its way towards an end point. Although we don't know a lot about it, there have also been a lot of critics about the secrecy involved. And so it's led to a bit of a stoush with the Australian Parliament, the Senate tried to get hold of - tried to force the Government to give it copies of what's been agreed or what's in negotiation but that's been turned down. A lot of other elements too including this whole question of whether companies should be able to sue governments.

Well, the man responsible for carriage of this for the Australian Government is the Trade and Industry Minister, Andre Robb, who joins us this morning. Minister, thank you very much for your time today.

ANDREW ROBB: It's my pleasure. So good to hear you're a trade groupie.

LINDA MOTTRAM:

I've always been a bit of a trade geek.

[Laughter].

Hey, listen, you're a minister, you must have to get up at all sorts of odd times. We've been talking about alarms. Do you have any secrets?

ANDREW ROBB: Ah well, actually if it's really critical, I do tend to wake up about a minute before the alarm goes off.

LINDA MOTTRAM:

Is that right?

ANDREW ROBB: But it's - or if I've got really worried, I've put two alarms on because I'm a very heavy sleeper normally.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Right. Put them out of arm's reach as well so you don't…

ANDREW ROBB: That's right…

LINDA MOTTRAM: Turn them off and go back to sleep.

ANDREW ROBB: Got to get out of bed, that's absolutely right.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Well, look, the TPP has been causing a lot of concern. Not least because of the sense of it being very secretive. Is it secretive, any more than any other trade negotiation?

ANDREW ROBB: No, there's really no difference from my experience. Look, we've had over 700 briefings with any party that we think has got a vital interest in the agreement because the only way we can negotiate something that's relevant and acceptable to the community in Australia is to know how any particular proposition by other parties in other countries would affect them.

So there's quite an endless sort of briefing process that goes on. And every time there's a new nuance introduced to the negotiation, our - my officials will go back to all these parties involved and - for instance, last time I was in Singapore, the last time we had several days for negotiation, I think there were representatives of nearly every agricultural industry, many of whom I knew from my past background a long time ago, involved with the farming organisations, and every day we had meetings, I met with them and gave them updates and quizzed them on things that may or may not be acceptable.

So the thing is, it's just not common practice to release texts before the agreement's been reached, because all you'll do is you'll end up giving ammunition to opponents and in different countries and in many cases there's ambit claims and all sorts of things and they bear no resemblance to the final agreement.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Nonetheless, no less than the Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, wrote to the 12 negotiating states and warned about grave risks because of secrecy. That would seem to suggest that there is something more to it this time than perhaps on other occasions.

ANDREW ROBB: No, I don't accept that. I mean I know that - I mean our industry groups in all sorts of areas, from manufacturers to agriculture to IT, you name it, pharmaceutics in particular, very concerned for the sort of reasons you raised at the outset. We’re finding that industry groups in Australia are being consulted by industry groups and all the other participating countries and they're all sharing information and some of them are extraordinarily well informed about all the options.

So I don't accept it to be honest. It's just that we're not releasing text but we are discussing these things endlessly with stakeholders and in the end they're the ones who - they represent their industries and they know what's in the interests of those industries and certainly they would make a big noise - you saw after the Korean (FTA), we've had nothing but except for the rice growers who unfortunately we weren't able to get any movement, we've had I think overwhelming acceptance and approval by all sorts of sectors right across the economy.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Andrew Robb is with us, Australia's Trade and Investment Minister, as the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations continue and critics continue to put out their concerns. Let's go to a couple of those that one about medicines, Minister.

ANDREW ROBB: Yes.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Is Australia going to be able to maintain the PBS in the form that we currently know it?

ANDREW ROBB: Yes. Yes. The mandate that I've got requires that. In other words, I put to Cabinet a series of propositions right across all sectors that are under negotiation in this free trade agreement. And I got a mandate from Cabinet; Cabinet has said that the PBS must remain as it is. So they're my riding instructions if you like and that's the position I take into the negotiations.

LINDA MOTTRAM: The US of course is partly the issue here. They want - pushing for prolonging patent monopolies. Assuming you have to stick to that mandate, then that would mean that you would be happy to not sign the TPP if the one thing in the way was jeopardising the PBS?

ANDREW ROBB: If this is not in our interests, there's no - we don't have to accept any of it. And I'm not going to sign up to anything that doesn't materially advance our national interest. Not just marginally but materially advance it.

But you've got to remember this is - it's really quite a - it is a very ambitious project. I mean there's 12 countries involved but you put them all together, they already represent $100 billion of our exports and they account for 34 per cent of our trade overall so if we can strike an arrangement with these 12 countries, which represent actually 40 per cent of all the world's GDP, then it will in a very material way build openness between all these countries.

Increase competitiveness, sure. But it means the things that we're good at won't be blocked into these countries and you get this seamless business environment to operate in. And it just will give us enormous gains if we can end up with a satisfactory agreement.

LINDA MOTTRAM: A satisfactory agreement of course is the key thing. And I notice somebody on the texts as you were mentioning earlier, Minister, that they've been a lot of consultations with stakeholders, one of those words…

ANDREW ROBB: Yes.

LINDA MOTTRAM: … that we all love so much, one of our texters is saying, we are stakeholders. I think that goes to the whole question of why not release the entire arrangement.

ANDREW ROBB: Well, again, I'll just say to you it's a negotiation, like it's even in this five months that I've been involved, it - there have been lots of changes and different propositions. Now, some of the things that were being avidly debated back in September have long been put aside.

If we had all that text out every time there's a new set of demands or ambit claims or whatever, it would just be used and abused. The negotiations just grind to a halt if you can't discuss things and have some trust between the 12 negotiators that, you know, this is not going to be spread around for political purposes.

And in many ways, a lot of those that are opposed and are using the PBS and other things that people understand, they've got an anti-trade agenda. Now, they're entitled to that, but we disagree with it. We think trade is critical to building sustainable jobs in Australia to make sure that we grow as a country.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Yeah. Well, there certainly is a debate still about the whole free trade thing, but let's just go to one other element. Of course this is a huge negotiation across many areas, but one other element that's raised a lot of concern is investor-state dispute settlement. Now, this basically means, doesn't it, that big companies can sue sovereign entities like Australia. Do you accept that that should be part of the final agreement?

ANDREW ROBB: Well, we've got a position that we should look at it on a case by case basis, and we've just agreed to include it in the Korean Free Trade Agreement because they were very keen to have that provision within their trade agreement. So it's on the table, but we haven't yet agreed to it. But I just say to you we currently have this so-called ISDS, investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, in agreements currently with 28 different countries already going back 30 years. And the roof hasn't fallen in. I mean, the only case that's been taken under that is the plain packaging tobacco.

So, again, I just - this one unites the hard left and the hard right. They both talk about sovereignty issues. I think it's just a - it's really being grabbed hold of to frighten people when there's absolutely no basis for frightening people.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Although I think many people would be concerned that Philip Morris is able to pursue the plain packaging laws - pursue Australia on that having lost in our own high court. I mean, it does feel like a fundamental undermining of our sovereignty.

ANDREW ROBB: Well, we had an agreement. In this case they're using a treaty, an ISDS treaty, investment treaty struck in 1993. Well, that's a long time ago and you do learn from past experience. For example, in the Korean Free Trade Agreement that I've just concluded, we did insist on explicit safeguards to ensure that regulation or law that's passed in public interest areas, such as health and the environment, cannot be covered by this ISDS.

So in contemporary agreements that have been struck between different countries these days, they have these safeguards put in and the Korean deal that we've just done with an ISDS, you could not have the plain packaging exercise repeated there because it has been essentially carved out those areas of public policy interests, especially to do with health and the environment.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Andrew Robb is with us, the Federal Trade Minister, talking about the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations; 12 countries involved, the US, of course, most notably the largest there.

The Congress, Minister, doesn't seem to be inclined to give President Obama the fast-track authority that he needs to proceed with this. Are you concerned that this could stall the whole thing?

ANDREW ROBB: Well, it could make it awkward. We'd have to see what happens. Every country has got its own internal politics. But, of course, in the United States the Democrats historically have not favoured free trade agreements. They are more inclined for an isolationist approach from the United States. And there's a lot of Democrats saying they won't support it.

The Republicans will support it, ironically, with President Obama being a Democrat, and there is a view, I think, still in Washington that when push comes to shove, enough Democrats will join the Republicans to pass this particular agreement.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Well, we shall see. It continues. Is there actually a timeframe for conclusion?

ANDREW ROBB: Well, there's been targets set. The end of last year was one, which came and went.

LINDA MOTTRAM: They always do, don't they? Come and go.

ANDREW ROBB: They do. It is what's called a 21st century agreement in that it's looking to have a look at state owned enterprises to see how we can set some rules which make it easier to do business with a lot of these emerging countries that have got many state owned enterprises. The whole issue of online commerce, we're trying to set some rules.

So it's an agreement which is breaking a lot of new ground, but it's a big one too with, as I said, 40 per cent of the world's GDP, and it would have a really major impact on, I think, increasing the opportunities for trade, not just in goods, but in services as well, which is a big part of our economy these days.

So I think it's quite exciting, to be honest, the opportunity. That does mean though, because it's so big, it gets complicated and sensitivities in every country. I think we'll be struggling to finish it by the end of this year, but if there's a big enough market access offering, which is our really major demand for agricultural productions and such, then it could conclude fairly quickly.

LINDA MOTTRAM: We shall see, as they say. Minister, thanks for talking to us today.

ANDREW ROBB: It's my pleasure.

LINDA MOTTRAM: Take care. Bye, bye.

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