Free trade risk to safety laws

Janine Kitson

Will the Abbott Government trade off Australia’s public welfare, health care, environment and working rights to multinational interests? This is the question being asked as the government negotiates the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP is a free trade agreement being worked out between the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Canada, Chile, Peru, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Japan.

Giant corporations, often American, want special rights to sue national governments if their investments are jeopardised by a law or policy designed to protect the public interest.

These disputes, known as Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), are “resolved” by international tribunals that prioritise investor rights. These tribunals can overrule national legal protections.

Despite “safeguards” ISDS expose governments to being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars over health, safety and environment legislation. At stake is an increase in medicine prices, internet freedom, workers’ rights and environmental protection.

The US Lone Pine energy company is currently using ISDS provisions in the North American Free Trade Agreement to sue the Quebec government for $US250 million because it suspended shale gas mining after environmental concerns were raised. If Australia agrees to ISDS rules there is the prospect that it could be sued by mining companies if, for example, it attempted to introduce laws to regulate coal seam gas mining.

In Peru, US mining giant Renco is suing the government for $US800 million after massive environmental damage and lead poisoning concerns led the Peruvian government to refuse an extension of Renco’s lead mining licence in the town of La Oroya, deemed one of the world’s most polluted places and where most children have elevated levels of lead poisoning.

Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network Convenor Dr Patricia Ranald said: “Even if governments win these cases they will have taken years and cost millions of dollars in legal fees.”

“There will be no guarantee that the ‘safeguards’ will work in future cases because the arbitrators do not have to base their decisions on previous precedents, meaning that the outcomes of future cases are unpredictable.”

It is deeply worrying that the Abbott Government has recently agreed to ISDS in the Korean free trade agreement.

The former Liberal prime minister, John Howard, did not agree to ISDS in the 2004 Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. Perhaps, even for him, it would have been too unpalatable to admit that the Liberal Party had betrayed the nation by selling off the interests of the Australian people to multinational corporations.

For more information visit the website of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network

Janine Kitson is on long service leave. Federation is affiliated to Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network.