Rafael Epstein: Andrew Robb good afternoon.

I suppose the question around whether or not the deal is good; clearly the Government believes it is great for the country. Is there value in someone like the Productivity Commission reviewing it now and reviewing it later; having an independent Government body that isn’t bureaucrats in DFAT or parliamentarians reviewing it, to convince people of its benefits? Is there worth in letting the Productivity Commission have a proper look at it? 

Andrew Robb: A lot of the major opportunities which will emerge out of this, I am not sure the Productivity Commission is the right group to capture it with their modelling. The thing is with these negotiations it is very difficult after six years of negotiations, to turn around, on the back of three or four people in the Productivity Commission over six weeks, saying that there are a whole lot of fundamental problems with it.

The Productivity Commission has in fact been philosophically opposed to bilateral agreements and regional agreements, and they have consistently said that unless you have every country in the world involved, then it is the second best outcome.  But the trouble is that there hasn’t been an agreement in the world with 200 countries; it keeps getting knocked out of the court. The Productivity Commission doesn’t reflect what is going on out there, in terms of trade agreements at least.  

Rafael Epstein: I think there are many people in the Government who are very keen to talk about the significant benefits, who know where the Labor Party will end up. I suppose I asked the question about the Productivity Commission because you have significant business people like Heather Ridout saying we should be cautious and we shouldn’t sign away our sovereign rights. If you had someone who was independent and qualified, like the Productivity Commission say; ‘Right, yes this ticks all the boxes’, wouldn’t that not reassure people?

Andrew Robb: But the issue is, for example, with the health system, biologics has been the key issue. Do we compromise our current health system? The Productivity Commission is not going to pick that up in their modelling; they are not going to for all sorts of reasons.  We’ve got, from my estimation, the best health arrangements which lead to the best pressure on prices, but still provide an incentive for biologics innovation into our country, and the evidence suggests that.

Now, I did commercial modelling for five years; I know how these things work and they cannot physically capture the transformational effect of rule changes across all of the 21st century e-commerce areas of electronic payment systems and services and the like.   

Rafael Epstein: So do we just have to trust the Government that this is going to be good for us?

Andrew Robb: It is not just the Government.  Despite all these suggestions that it’s all under secrecy, my negotiating team has spent more time consulting with all of the key industry groups and major players and SMEs and all the rest, than we have in actual negotiations.  That’s because the only way we can negotiate effectively is to stay in constant contact with the industries that are going to be affected. Now, a lot of these anti-trade people are entitled to be against trade, but they are a very small minority.  

Rafael Epstein: They may not be against trade, they might be concerned that a change in health policy say, will be negated because a big company can take us to a court outside of the country, that is not being against trade is it?

Andrew Robb: That was the only point that Heather Ridout raised out of thousands of issues that are involved in this agreement; we took it on board and we do listen to people, like Heather and the consumer groups, and they have expressed legitimate concerns about public health and environmental policy being subject to legal challenges by companies against countries.

In this agreement we were instrumental in – for the first time with the US and some other countries – ensuring with the dispute settlement mechanism, that we would have safeguards against public health policy being subject to these challenges, safeguards against public environmental policy being subject to these challenges; we are receptive to community sensitivities about these issues, but more than that, we were part of the group that led the charge on getting a total ban on tobacco companies having any access to these dispute settlement mechanisms.  So we have listened and it is not a secret society, it is very much one where we have listened to people. 

Rafael Epstein: Everyone from Bernie Sanders on the left who is running for President to Donald Trump on the right are opposed to this deal and there are a number of parliaments in a number of countries that have to approve this deal. Will it get approved and how long do you think it will take?

Andrew Robb: We’ve got to do what they call ‘legal scrubbing’ and given that there are many languages and cultures involved, we have to make sure that the translation of every different country in this deal, are all saying the same thing and that every document is saying the same thing so we do not have disputes later on.

That takes a little while, and then we will sign it towards the end of the year – with all the detail being out well before that – with all countries, then we all go back to our parliamentary processes and we should hopefully get it through by the middle of next year. 

But I don’t think any of the countries – including the US which gets a lot of the focus – they would not have settled the agreement if they did not think they would be able to go back and sell the deal in their own countries. Now there were some difficult issues but they all said that they could.   

Rafael Epstein: Andrew Robb, thank you for your time.

Andrew Robb: Thanks very much.

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