Finance Finance News Secret trade deal turns consumers into criminals

Secret trade deal turns consumers into criminals

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If you download music illegally or rely on government-subsidised medicine, things might be about to get a lot worse for you.

The Australian government is negotiating a secretive deal with 11 other countries that could see you get a criminal record for illegally downloading copyrighted material.

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The deal – known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) – could also force your internet provider to spy on you, increase the price of medicine, and allow foreign-owned corporations to sue the government for enacting policies that are in the public interest, according to consumer groups.

Despite the potentially serious effects on Australian consumers, the details of the agreement have been kept secret, prompting consumer group CHOICE and activist group GetUp! to launch campaigns calling for the government to release details of the agreement.

So far the government has refused.

Trade Minister Andrew Robb with his US counterpart. Photo: AAP

The dangers

According to Erin Turner, campaigns manager at CHOICE, the TPP could bring benefits to a lot of Australians, but the secrecy surrounding it means we don’t know what the benefits and drawbacks will be.

“At CHOICE, we’re concerned about consumer rights being traded away for international business profits,” she says, citing concerns about food regulation, environmental regulations and copyright law.

“It’s hard to know exactly what’s in there, and exactly the effect on consumers – that’s a large part of the problem.

“But what we think could happen, based on leaked copies of some chapters, is that our copyright laws could be affected. For example, it would criminalise copyright infringement.”

Currently copyright infringement is a civil matter, which means while you can be taken to court for illegally downloading a song, you will not get a criminal record for it. Ms Turner says under the TPP this could change, affecting employment and travel prospects.

Big corporations lord it over governments

“The largest concern we have,” says Ms Turner, “is around Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS) provisions. These provide a mechanism for businesses to take countries like Australia through an arbitration process when they possibly face financial loss due to a regulation or a change in law.”

A prime example of this is tobacco giant Philip Morris’ ongoing challenge to Australia’s plain packaging laws, which it is arguing are an infringement of Australia’s free trade deal with Hong Kong.

According to GetUp!, there are many other similar examples around the world. In El Salvador, for example, a Canadian company is suing the government for $315 million in “loss of future profits” because local citizens won a campaign against a gold mine that threatened to contaminate water supplies.

This, according to Deakin University economics lecturer Margaret McKenzie, could see foreign corporations interfering with government subsidies of essentials such as medicine and healthcare.

“It intervenes in the notion of what the government decides is in the public interest,” she says. “There’s an issue of how it affects sovereignty in individual countries.”

Philip Morris is using the Hong Kong-Australia free trade deal to challenge the plain packaging law.

Nothing unusual

However, according to James Paterson, deputy executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, there is nothing unusual about the ISDS provisions.

“It’s pretty standard thing that if a business enters into a trading agreement with a country and something significant changes, then they have a right of redress. It’s not specific to the TPP.”

Mr Paterson says most multilateral agreements of this sort are discussed behind closed doors, and once an agreement is reached, they are then taken to Parliament to be approved or rejected.

The New Daily asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when it expected a deal to be reached, and when it would publish the details.

No response had been received at time of publication.

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