Most of my time was spent hovering in the lobby of the Singapore hotel where the Trans Pacific Partnership ministers’ meeting was taking place. The agreement includes Singapore, Malaysia, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei, Peru, Chile, Japan, Canada, Mexico and Vietnam.
Trade ministers from the negotiating countries had hoped to wrap up the three-year talks by making decisions on the major outstanding issues, despite significant conflicts over many of the 29 or so chapters of the agreement. They failed to meet this self-imposed deadline.
While civil society stakeholders have always had a rather marginal role in the negotiations, at most previous rounds there have been opportunities for academics and NGO representatives to participate formally in the process.
But the meeting in Singapore had a very different feel. This time stakeholders had no role as participants and no avenues for interacting with negotiators except through personal contacts.
It was clear that ministers were getting down to business. And it was even more difficult than usual to get any information about what was happening.
But there were reports that small groups of ministers met to hammer out compromises on the stickiest issues, and that these were then put to the rest of the countries.
Health and medicines
Even more worrying were suggestions that the group negotiating the highly sensitive intellectual property chapter included only one of the countries advocating for a fairer proposal on medicines (it is not known which of these countries was involved).
A draft of the intellectual property chapter leaked to Wikileaks in November showed the United States has continued to push for expanded and extended patent protection and exclusive rights over clinical trial data, among other provisions, that could delay access to affordable medicines.
Several countries have put forward a fairer counter-proposal. While Australia was reportedly involved in the early development of this counter-proposal, its current position is unclear.
The Australian government has maintained that it will not accept anything in the agreement that would undermine the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or the health system.
But on the third day of talks, a leaked memo prepared as an update after the last set of talks in November revealed Australia’s support for the fairer medicines counter-proposal for the intellectual property chapter of the agreement was waning.
The memo also showed Australia had collaborated with the United States and Japan to revise the ‘healthcare transparency annex’, the part of the agreement that will affect the PBS.
On the final day of talks, an article in Washington Trade Daily cast further doubt on the Australian government’s claims about protecting the nation’s health and medicines policies.
It reported that:
Australia, New Zealand and Canada, among others, dropped their objections to the high-standard disciplines in intellectual property and came on board by agreeing to the modified text. Effectively, there is consensus on the intellectual property dossier except for one developing country, WTD was told.
‘High-standard disciplines’ refers to the extremely high level of intellectual property protection proposed by the United States.
While he was in Singapore, Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb’s office also made it very clear that he was prepared to agree to an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism (ISDS) in the treaty, in exchange for access to other markets.
Such clauses allow foreign state investors to bypass domestic legal systems and have their case heard by trade experts.
While there have been reports of major concessions being made, the ministers were unable to iron out all outstanding issues at the meeting. A short statement issued at its end said ministers had ‘decided to continue our intensive work in the coming weeks…’ and that they intend to meet again in January.
Back in Australia
On the same day as the memo was leaked, the Australian government blocked an order by the Senate to reveal the Trans Pacific Partnership text before it’s signed.
And 44 prominent academics and public health experts wrote to the health minister to express their concerns and to urge the government to honour the Senate order.
Today, the Senate has passed a motion noting the letter and reiterating its call for the release of the text.
I hope the delay in concluding the negotiations at a time when there’s rising concern among the Australian public will mean there is time to persuade the government to take a stance that’s conducive to a healthy agreement, a healthy country and a healthy region.
I also hope the Senate is successful in its efforts to make the text of the agreement available for public scrutiny before our government commits to its terms.
First published on The Conversation on 12 December 2013.
Image credit: Shawn Oster