The Greens in Australia are trumpeting a win after a motion was passed in the Senate calling for the federal government to publish any Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement treaty text before Australia signs on the dotted line.
The Greens needed the vote of the federal opposition, the Australian Labor Party, to secure passage of the motion. That means the former government, which happily horse-traded through years of secret TPP negotiations, has now had a change of heart and decided that the treaty should be public, after all.
Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson put out a statement saying the Senate order “will make the final text of the TPPA publically available before being signed off by Cabinet, so the entire Australian community can scrutinise this trade deal”, adding the pious but improbably claim that the production of documents “will take the politics out of the TPPA process and end the secrecy around Australia's biggest ever trade negotiations.”
The TPPA, with signatories to include Australia, the USA, Canada, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore, has been both secret and controversial, with the public only seeing treaty text when someone chooses to leak a copy.
The most recent leak demonstrated that the treaty could include broad criminal penalties for copyright infringement, extensions of copyright terms, strict provisions against circumventing technological protection measures on copyright material, and patent appeasements to the pharmaceutical industry.
There is also text, the “investor-state dispute settlement” provisions, allowing companies from one country to launch legal action against other countries over whether local laws are in breach of the treaty.
That's vexing for citizens of the nations concerned. It's also of concern for much of the rest of the world, as multilateral treaties like the TPPA tend to set agendas followed by other nations.
While the Australian Senate's order can be refused, it's rare for such decrees to be ignored. The Parliament's documentation of Senate Powers and Practices says "Orders for production of documents are among the most significant procedures available to the Senate to deal with matters of public interest giving rise to questions of ministerial accountability", and notes that the Senate can treat non-compliance as contempt.
It's conceivable that Australian realpolitik could mean the government cites national security or some variant thereon as a reason to keep the treaty's text hidden from the public, but for now there's a decently-bright ray of hope for those who'd like to understand just what's in the controversial document. ®