Geraldine Doogue: Is this heat (regarding TPP negotiations) surprising you Minister Robb?
Andrew Robb: Somewhat. This is the first trade agreement done by either side of politics which has attracted such attention; quite orchestrated and very deliberate campaigns to derail the negotiations, and it’s not just happening in Australia. So it’s a little bit surprising in that sense, but with the world getting more and more global, I think there are certain segments of the community that just don’t like it, they don’t like big corporations, they don’t like the move to globalisation, they feel the rights of countries are being compromised, so it’s a legitimate argument in some areas.
Geraldine Doogue: Do you have any sympathy with them?
Andrew Robb: No, not particularly. I do think if you look at the impact of globalisation over the last 20 to 30 years, it’s been remarkable. It has its rough edges, so you need to have continual debates, but the hundreds of millions of people that have been brought out of poverty in the last 20 years is a humanitarian miracle. What’s happening with China, what’s happening with India, what’s happening with Vietnam, what’s happening in Indonesia; they’re all being driven by globalisation and these global supply chains, and the internet and the connectivity that now exists, that never did exist before between nations.
And it’s driving growth – not withstanding some of the silly political policies in many parts of the world – it’s driving growth and investment in a way which is so materially important to bringing people by the hundreds of millions, and by the billions in the end, out of poverty, and this has never been achieved in the history of the world, never.
Geraldine Doogue: Let me go to some of the emails I’ve been receiving, just since I spoke to Fran Kelly on Radio National Breakfast; this from Dr Patricia Ranald, who’s from a group called ‘Australia fair trade and investment network’ – it’s a lobby group – and she wrote that DFAT had held consultations about the TPP, but the information provided is very limited because the text isn’t available and they can’t discuss the detail. In response to community concerns, the European Commission has agreed to release the text of the TTIP – their version, the trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership with the US – before it’s signed. If this can be done for the TTIP why not for the TPP? So I’m going to ask you that.
Andrew Robb: We released the Korean text before it was signed.
Geraldine Doogue: But was that before it was ratified? Which she said isn’t much good, because that point is at the very end of the process.
Andrew Robb: It’s quite complicated for the audience listening, but what happens is you do complete negotiations, and then you usually translate where there’s different languages – which invariably there are – you translate the documents, and then they go through what they call Legal Scrub, which means they go line by line through thousands of pages because they have to make sure what’s written in one language actually means exactly the same thing as what’s been written in another language.
Now there’s been major disputes following agreements when that hasn’t happened, so that process usually takes four months, then you sign, then after that it then goes, in Australia’s case, to the parliament. Everyone has 100 per cent access to all of the texts; it goes to senate inquiries, it goes to treaty inquiries, there’s public hearings, it sits on the floor of the parliament for 15 days and it can be accepted or rejected. So there is a very deliberate and sensible process which has actually been exercised by both sides of politics.
Now at the moment the Labor party is calling for us to release text of all of these different agreements that I’ve been doing in the last 12 months, long before the things are finished. That’s like going into a game of poker, and one side having all your cards on the table for the other person to see – that’s exactly the case if you put all your possible negotiating positions on the table, then you can’t have a serious negotiation because you’re just being gamed all the time by those you’re negotiating with.
Geraldine Doogue: You love negotiating – the chess board play of it – and I suppose a lot of others don’t and they need to trust completely that you and our negotiators will act in our best interests, knowing that the big boys, like the US, is pushing hard to represent themselves, so how can you console people that you necessarily are able to represent our interests; we’re not coming out of poverty, like you’re describing, we’re in a different situation.
Andrew Robb: We’re contributing to those people coming out of poverty with these sorts of agreements.
Geraldine Doogue: Dare I say what about us?
Andrew Robb: We benefit in the process; by the trade that we create with a lot of these developing parts of the world – they benefit, we benefit. But to answer your main question: how do you satisfy people, firstly governments are elected, or the cabinet, to look at what we can negotiate and what we can’t.
Before I even start negotiating I have to put down the paper which asks for a mandate from the cabinet and it goes to every minister and every department, and they all come back with their views because they really shape what I can negotiate around, then I’ve got to go and do my best effort to get the best outcome for Australia. Now in the process we have endless consultations, I meet endlessly with different parts of the interest groups, because bureaucracy and individual politicians can’t possibly have a detailed understanding of the implications of the many many steps.
There’s just endless interaction, because we say: ‘the US is saying do this’ or ‘China is saying do that’ or ‘Korea’s saying they want this step, how would that affect our industry?’ – we’ve had over 1000 consultations in this TPP process of that nature.
The ACTU had 15 consultations; they actually helped us write the text for the labour chapter, now you wouldn’t know that from the statements that are made. But the person you referred to is in every lobby group on this if you look behind it. A health group came out the other day, and she was in that as well, but when we’ve chased down her email addresses they end up back at the ACTU.
There are certain anti-trade unions, there are other trade unions that are very pro-trade, but there are certain ones that philosophically are against trade and they’re mounting a campaign; they’re entitled to, but it’s our job to articulate why people shouldn’t be worried and to try and do what is in Australia’s best interest.
Geraldine Doogue: But people like Professor Ian Harper for instance, I don’t think are against trade. Their competition review just last week brought up this whole question of IP – intellectual property in particular – specifically digital rights, and then as you said the pharmaceuticals the labour laws, now you can see why people are so concerned about the fine print, with things unfolding so rapidly?
Andrew Robb: It gets enormously complicated, I would have spent in 15 months – this thing has been going on for four years – but in 15 months I would have spent now about 25 full days in negotiations, quite apart from any time I’ve spent interacting with the community that’s helping us with those, and with my negotiators who have spent many many more months than I have in the detailed negotiations.
We’ve had negotiations in lots of different parts of the world where we meet – in Singapore recently there were about eight interest groups from Australia who paid their own way, they go and stay in a hotel for the length of the negotiations. I talk to them at night, they talk to the negotiators all day and we bounce off them the propositions; the dynamic circumstance that’s going on in the room with the negotiations, and this is the way it works.
To suggest this is secretive and no one knows about it and no one sees the detail, it’s total nonsense and it’s just a scare campaign with people who have a different agenda – which they’re entitled to have – but they’re using two or three issues alone actually, out of 1000s of issues, and they’re the things that would worry people most: will their PBS – their medical benefits – be affected; the cost of prescriptions, it’s all the politically sensitive issues.
Geraldine Doogue: Are you sure they won’t be affected?
Andrew Robb: Why would I set out to make Australians materially worse off? This is the question I keep asking. What am I in this job for? To try and benefit the Australian community.
Geraldine Doogue: Of course, but I might look on and think to myself, ‘well a negotiator like him would say I’ll do little trade-offs, in order to get us access to what you might say are the big new job creations of the future, I’ll just trim some of those concessions that we have at the moment and that won’t really do us material long term harm.
Andrew Robb: Of course there are trade-offs and of course I am making those sorts of decisions, but again in consultations with the interest groups. We’ve had 135 meetings with the pharmaceutical groups and they’ve got a point of view which is different to the consumer groups, but there’s a balance there somewhere, where you’ve got to give enough incentive for the pharmaceutical companies to invest literally billions of dollars into development of drugs which can give solutions to the problems we’ve got in cancers and all the rest.
And there’s got to be a balance between how much profit can they make, to have an incentive to go and try another un-tried drug, and also keeping the cost of medicines down for the community.
Now that balance is all a matter of judgment, and as you get new techniques, you get all these biologics coming along now. Rather than the chemical drugs, you’re getting biological drugs and it’s a whole new world again, and where’s the balance in that? Well no one knows frankly, it’s a dynamic process; my great friend Ron Walker was given two months to live with a melanoma two and a half years ago. He had cancers all through him. He went on a trial drug with a biologic – which was not even registered, it was pre-trials – and Ron hasn’t got one cancer left in him today. This was a miracle, and how do we make judgements about the cost or the incentive for companies to keep pouring billions of dollars into that sort of case, when every melanoma sufferer listening this morning will say keep going for it.
Geraldine Doogue: True, are you implying there that it means that if you did have to do something slightly different about the approval of drugs, that we’ve been so rigorous about, it might be worth that trade-off, is that what you’re saying?
Andrew Robb: No it’s not the approval process, it’s a question of how long they get a patent period, this was the most difficult issue I had to get my mind around, because it’s all new territory, it’s producing unbelievable benefits for the community but we’ve got to try and keep the costs down, and finding that balance is very difficult, and we’re making judgements and in the end you might make a wrong judgment but we’re all doing our best to make the right judgement.
Geraldine Doogue: One of the other major areas of concern, something we’ve covered before here on the program, the investor state dispute settlement provisions, it’s a bit complicated but it’s a device to protect foreign investors who feel that their business interests are being disadvantaged, and I’d like to read you something that the veteran US player Ralf Nader said just recently in the US, worrying about how the possible provisions of the TPP could affect them, but of course would also apply to us. This is what he said: ‘Suppose that Brazil sues the U.S. and says “your food labelling laws are too restrictive and they are keeping out our exports to your country.” Then we send our Attorney General to Geneva before the Tribunal. There can be no press, no public disclosure of what happens behind closed doors. If we lose, as we almost certainly will, there is no independent appeal. It circumvents our courts, legislative and regulations. Foreign corporations can take our food, health and safety protections and bring us before these tribunals and if they lose, we pay millions of dollars in compensation.’ Now that is partly worrying, and did worry our Chief Justice Robert French – that sort of material.
Andrew Robb: The motivation of most of these people is again their disagreement with the way in which the world is going with large corporations, some of which are bigger than some countries.
Geraldine Doogue: That’s the trouble. Is there a potential shift possible?
Andrew Robb: You’ve got to ask why is this whole campaign – which is uniting the hard right and the hard left ironically – why is it that it is about the issue of sovereignty? We have got ISDS agreements with 28 countries that have extended back over 30 years. Now the sun I notice still comes up every morning despite this being the case, and yet if you read a lot of what some of these people are saying today, you’d think the world’s going to stop if we have an ISDS clause.
Geraldine Doogue: But John Howard refused it in the USA free trade agreement?
Andrew Robb: He did that with good reason, because the US court system, in our view, was fair and we understand it and we felt that Australian companies, if they were discriminated against in the United States, would have fair and reasonable treatment before their courts. That’s not true with a lot of other countries where we don’t understand their legal system. The only case we’ve had in Australia is the tobacco case, which is ongoing and may not succeed, but secondly we have used it – our companies have used it, not the Australian government – our companies have used it into India, where the legal system is similar to ours, but if you can access it within 10 or 15 years, you’re lucky.
So this alternative provision has given some compensation to our companies in India who invested in good faith and then found the government moved a law to remove their rights to mine or whatever, but not to any other Indian companies, so there was a clear case of discrimination, which is where this provision applies.
So we have benefited – some of our companies have benefited – in those areas where there is not a robust legal system and the judges, invariably in some countries, would never find in favour of a foreign investor, they need some protection if they’re going to invest, otherwise they won’t invest.
That’s why it’s been there. It has worked for 28 years, more and more protections have been built into it. If we had the ISDS which we’d agreed to in the Korean free trade agreement, if we’d had the ISDS that we agreed to in the China free trade agreement, which we’re just about to conclude, the tobacco case wouldn’t have been able to have occurred. We’re protected, we’ve put protections now around health and around environment initiatives by government, and that’s my position and I haven’t resiled from it in the TPP. It hasn’t been resolved yet, but I’m not looking to agree to anything which doesn’t have those protections and therefore people shouldn’t have the concerns that we’re hearing about.
Geraldine Doogue: A final question, when can we expect a deal?
Andrew Robb: That’s a good question, that’s something I’m less certain about. We are very close, you can see the finishing line. It’s very complicated; there’s 12 countries, 40 per cent of the world’s GDP – we’re trying to get one set of rules across a huge area in our region. It’s been a hugely complicated exercise but we’re getting very close.
We’ve got some of the more political issues, some of which we’ve just discussed, which are still being resolved, but I think we’re within a couple of months, if and only if the United States congress has given the president the authority to make the final decision that whatever we come up with, is in the interest of the United States.
Geraldine Doogue: That’s a big if.
Andrew Robb: If it doesn’t happen, this TPA, this authority for the president – usually they pass this before every trade deal – I think there’s only three or four months, this thing will stall and won’t come back until after the new president.
Geraldine Doogue: Andrew Robb we were hoping to talk to you about economic diplomacy which is one of the ventures of you and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, which has gone under the radar, but this issue has dominated all others, so we’ll have to have you back. Thank you very much indeed for your time.
Andrew Robb: It’s been a great pleasure, thanks very much Geraldine.
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