Bruce Bisset: True cost of 'free' deal kept secret

By Bruce Bisset

Seems to me of all the ways corporate bureaucrats have of tying us in knots, there is nothing as sinister as an international regime that binds nations to its cause without them even knowing what's at stake.

And when it comes to secret deals that trample sovereign rights, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) takes the cake. A complex 29-chapter legal document that espouses to be about "free trade", it is, in fact, about over-ruling the wishes of governments and their citizens in favour of vested corporate interests.

It is, at the least, something those about to be enslaved by it deserve to know, in full.

Yet apart from the questionable accuracy of a couple of draft chapters that have been leaked, even senior Government ministers do not know what the TPP contains except in very broad terms. That is nowhere near acceptable, since as anyone with half a clue knows, the devil is in the detail.

See, the politicians may be flouncing round the edges of this week's Auckland meeting of intended parties to the agreement (at this stage New Zealand, US, Australia, Mexico, Canada, Chile, Peru, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam) but the real negotiating is effectively taking place independently of them.

Those negotiators are an eclectic mix of civil servants and corporate lawyers and lobbyists, mostly dancing to their own tunes and publicly beholden to no one. In the way of such things, a consensus agreement among them may come at a cost far higher than New Zealanders would or should be prepared to pay.

But not only will neither Parliament nor ordinary citizens know the detail in advance, they won't when it's signed either, since the text will be kept secret for four whole years after it is in effect.

If you're a transnational corporation looking to lock up a process or a resource or an intellectual right, an opaque four-year window provides perfect opportunity, doesn't it?

Yep. We won't even know what we're losing until it's lost beyond recall.

As for recourse: sorry, fat chance. Disputes will be arbitrated not by the signatory governments, but by tribunals of the commercial parties in dispute - and alarmingly their rulings will bind governments whether governments like it or not.

If this sounds like some conspiracist form of insanity, it gets worse.

Not only may some existing laws be overturned in these kangaroo courts on the basis they are "anti-competitive", our government will be severely restricted as to what it can and can't legislate in future under threat of suit for "inequitable" regulation.

Take genetic modification, for example. Already signalled as a likely "give up" by NZ's chief negotiator Mark Sinclair (which we only know about from a leaked US memo in 2010 courtesy of Wikileaks), expect Monsanto et al to be beating down any attempt to restrict GE crops and foods from day one post-agreement.

Our overseas investment rules are also threatened. Any attempt to restrict purchases of land on the basis of non-residency is predicted to be quickly overturned by corporate tribunal.

Labour practices, environmental laws and health and safety are other biggies. An overseas company may not only be able to mine where it likes but carry out its operations in ways that break labour laws and despoil the country worse than is already deemed unacceptable. Then there's intellectual copyright, particularly protecting corporate claims to drugs and research, resulting in higher pharmaceutical prices and less freedom of choice as well as restrictions on what our scientists can and can't do.

In short, the TPP could effectively make democratic government redundant, and the rule of law something handed down by multinationals, for their benefit alone; while for all these (uncosted) losses, we gain the dubious (and exaggerated) pleasure of "free" access to the co-signatories markets.

Someone should remind the slavering local business backers of this madness that one good-sized US company could eat our whole country for breakfast.

With the TPP in place, they will.

Tomorrow is a national day of protest against the TPP. There was to be a rally in Napier, but the organisers have decided to travel and join the action in Palmerston North instead.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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