Last Thursday, 4 February, trade ministers from Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam gathered in Auckland where the Trans-Pacific Partnership—otherwise known as the TPP agreement—was formally signed.
Australian trade minister, Andrew Robb, was among the 12 delegates who attended the signing ceremony. Before I go any further I would like to take this opportunity to wish the minister all the very best following the announcement of his retirement from this place. I am sure he will go on to bigger and better things. Certainly in my dealings with him while I have been up here as well, I have always found him to be very approachable and very courteous. His hard work and his drive in relation to securing free trade agreements will be legendary, I am sure. Despite the many valid and important concerns that were raised by both the opposition and other people and groups within the Australian community, I am certain that his principal driver and motivation was always to act in the national interest and to get the best deal possible for Australia.
The signing of the TPP deal in Auckland was the public relations exercise that kicks off the domestic ratification process. All 12 of the Asia-Pacific nations party to the TPP now have two years to ratify the agreement. The government this week tabled the TPP in the parliament and this begins our own ratification process, which will involve extensive public consultations where we will all get the opportunity to have a say on the merits or otherwise of the TPP.
The Joint Standing Committee on Treaties will hold public hearings and will receive submissions from the public over the course of the next few months giving agencies, interest groups and the general public an opportunity to make submissions and to attend public hearings. I also want to acknowledge my parliamentary colleague, the member for Wills, who has had a longstanding association with that committee and who is also retiring. He has been one of the best members I have ever met. Good on you, Kelvin, and thank you for the advice on the TPP.
A report to government will be prepared. I certainly encourage everyone who has a view on the TPP to come forward, to have their say and to express their concerns. I will be encouraging my electorate to come forward and have its say. Free trade agreements in general always raise concerns of the community largely around what their governments are trading or giving away in order perhaps to extract benefit and opportunity in the long term.
The TPP has so far been very controversial, not only here in Australia but also in the United States and in Canada. A similar trade pact in Europe is causing controversy there as well. Issues of secrecy and sovereignty are key things of this controversy.
I want to flag today some of the issues of concern that I have with the TPP, and that the people in my electorate see as having a potentially negative impact on the Australian people's national interest. Firstly, let me acknowledge that what the proponents of the TPP assert and believe is that it has the potential to bring great benefits to the Australian economy—especially in relation to the goods and services exports. Ratifying the TPP would see us part of an agreement that accounts for 40 per cent of global GDP, representing one-third of world trade. That, I agree, is a pretty good club to be in.
The TPP, however, is more than a bilateral food trade agreement; it creates a free trade region, meaning that there are opportunities for vast economic benefits to such an agreement. Of course, the Australian economy needs to pitch itself to the opportunities and challenges of the global and regional economy. This is vital for our economic prosperity. But opportunities for growth in jobs is also key to our prosperity. The Australian people expect us to take all steps necessary to create job opportunities for them so that they too can share in the prosperity that comes with the so-called free trade agreements. They do not want a free trade agreement that denies them job opportunities. They also do not want us to trade away our sovereignty and democratic processes. It is for this reason that the TPP has raised such controversy, and it will continue to do so.
The clauses in the TPP causing most angst and controversy are the investor-state dispute settlement processes, the abolition of labour-market testing for member countries and provisions that potentially impact on the affordability of medicines. The ISDS clause in the agreement allows companies to sue governments over domestic laws that may impact on their commercial interests. This is, indeed, a great threat to our sovereignty. Many people in the community see this for what it is and are opposed to it: it is a vehicle for enhancing corporate power ahead of government power, thus impacting on the democratic process.
Already, if you want an example, there is a challenge from Philip Morris Asia regarding our plain-packaging legislation. The arbitration proceedings brought against our government by Philip Morris could be a sign of things to come—where corporate interests can override the people's interest and the people's sovereignty. Any capacity, such as the ISDS provisions, in this TPP, that give companies from the 12-member countries the opportunity to bring arbitration proceedings against the Australian government, would not be acceptable to the Australian people.
It is precisely this threat to the government's right to legislate in the public interest—with our concerns of being challenged by corporations and their commercial interests—that is being rejected. The concern around the ISDS clause also centres around the fact that the international tribunals adjudicating ISDS actions are not equivalent to our own domestic courts. The arbitrators are not truly independent and there is no precedent for appeals; furthermore, if a company were to bring proceedings against Australia, such as the Philip Morris case, the Australian government would likely have to spend millions of public dollars defending its position.
Our second concern relates to the free movement of people, within the TPP countries signatory to the agreement, which seemingly allows for a working-visa regime that does not require labour-market testing at any level and in many categories is uncapped. In an environment where unemployment is very high and many Australians are struggling to get jobs—as high as 27 per cent of youth unemployment in parts of my electorate alone—I cannot understand why our government would allow the abolition of labour-market testing.
At the risk of being labelled a protectionist, even though I am for a bigger and more open Australia, I believe that Australian workers should always be entitled to first consideration in the Australian job market. Our young people are being trained and educated with the intention of getting jobs. We are constantly investing in their future so that they can take their place in the workforce. We cannot afford a TPP that undermines their prospects, especially the job prospects of people in my electorate.
Furthermore, in many cases, the labour-market provisions are not reciprocal, which means Australians are not afforded the same opportunities as other TPP countries. We cannot sign off on a deal that does not give Australian workers the same level playing field and I say this on behalf of the people in my electorate who have already lost jobs—especially in the car industry—as a result of previously lauded free trade agreements.
Our third concern relates to the inclusion of copyright and intellectual-property provisions for biologics. It is the first time such matters have been included in a free trade agreement. Biologics are incredibly important and are used to treat various cancers and other serious diseases that are prevalent in the Australian community. Any threat to the affordability of medicines in this Australian community will be resisted by the community. Last week there was a briefing in this parliament where the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network presented a letter signed by 59 community organisations that represent over two million Australians as well as a petition from GetUp! and SumOfUs, signed by 305,000 Australians, stating their strong concerns about workers rights and the cost of medicines in the TPP. The concerns and actions of this organisation should not be written off as the actions of the so-called 'usual suspects'. These are legitimate organisations representing legitimate concerns as expressed by legitimate Australians.
I agree with the many community groups, including the public health advocates and unions, who have asked the government to refer the TPP to the Productivity Commission for an independent assessment, because only after an independent assessment and a full and frank public consultation where legitimate concerns are raised and responded to can we truly understand the impact of the TPP and determine what provisions should be accepted and what provisions should be rejected or amended.
This is an important free trade agreement. I have acknowledged that in my speech here today. It does boast many benefits for Australia now and into the future but it also does raise serious concerns which if not heeded and dealt with appropriately may have ramifications for the Australian people now and into the future.