Korea deal sorted, now big one looms
Fresh from concluding the long-promised free-trade agreement with South Korea, Australia's Trade Minister has a new challenge.
On Friday Andrew Robb moves from world trade talks in Bali, where he has managed to chair sessions and negotiate with the Koreans on the side, to Singapore where he'll try to put together probably the most difficult trade agreement in history.
The Trans Pacific Partnership encompasses 12 nations and may eventually encompass more. Combined, they account for 40 per cent of the world's economic output and 25 per cent of the world's trade.
Leaked negotiating texts published by Fairfax Media last month indicate the going has been tough. On intellectual property in particular, nations such as Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam don't have much in common.
But Mr Robb has a weapon not available to Labor predecessor Craig Emerson. He is prepared to trade away Australia's previously hardline opposition to Investor State Dispute Settlement procedures, known by the unappealing acronym of ISDS.
ISDS provisions are more attractive for many investors because they allow disputes to be settled through international arbitration, rather than through the courts of the host country. It is ISDS provisions buried in an obscure investment agreement with Hong Kong that Philip Morris is using to challenge Australia's plain packaging laws before the World Trade Organisation. Never mind that Philip Morris lost its case in the High Court, never mind that it had to change the address of a subsidiary to Hong Kong to do it, ISDS provisions are a nuisance to sovereign governments because they mean they no longer have the last word.
Labor, with Mr Emerson as minister, said Australia would sign up to no more agreements that bound it with ISDS provisions. It's one of the reasons Australia's talks with Korea as good as stopped. Mr Robb restarted them by making it clear he was prepared to deal on ISDS provisions. They are in the Korean agreement, but with carve-outs "in important areas such as public welfare, health and the environment".
Under the Korean deal, tariffs will be eliminated on Australian agricultural exports, including beef, wheat, sugar, dairy, wine, horticulture and seafood, as well as resources, energy and manufactured goods.
Labor had been close to getting the US to agree not to bind Australia to ISDS provisions in the Trans Pacific Partnership, just as it had in negotiating the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement with John Howard, making Australia the only country with whom the US has an FTA without ISDS requirements.
This week's Korean deal weakens Mr Robb's hand in holding out against an ISDS in the Trans Pacific Partnership, but he said he still intended to do so until he received a good price.
"If there is a substantial market access offering, and if we can also succeed in getting exclusions and protections to safeguard certain public policy measures then we will be prepared to put it on the table, but it is not on the table yet."
Asked whether that meant Australia needed something in return, Mr Robb said: "That's right."
The gains would need to provide extra market access to the US, Japan, Canada, or any of the other eight nations. Questions of intellectual property and access to medicines were "red-line issues".
"We will not do anything to increase the cost of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme," Mr Robb said.