When the interwebs exploded in fiery debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership last week, you’d think the free-trade agreement was news. The TPP, however, has been in negotiations, largely in secret, for several years. I recently learned about the controversial deal while in New Zealand, one of twelve countries entering into the partnership.
This was in November. Thousands of protesters marched in city centres around the country, urging leaders to oppose the free-trade agreement.
Even more recently, New Zealand’s Green Party MP said, “National’s TPP deal will make us second class citizens in our own country by ceding sovereignty over policy decisions to big businesses.”
And Mana member John Minto said the TPP is “not in New Zealand’s interests,” but rather that of “US corporations to come and plunder the New Zealand economy.”
Since then, more protests and marches have taken place against the TPP in New Zealand (five so far this year), Japan, and at last in the United States. Ironically, we Americans will be both the perpetrators and the victims if the TPP is approved.
(Actually, it’s not that ironic. We do this to ourselves all the time.)
But the TPP is different. The Trans-Pacific Partnership is so broad, so far-reaching that it will affect everything from the environment, food safety, the internet, and the job market. What’s more, the contents of the trade agreement have been kept top secret.
It all began in 2005 when Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore signed the Pacific-4 trade agreement. Three years later in 2008, President George W. Bush announced the United States would begin negotiations with the P4 countries. Other nations, including Australia, Canada, Peru, Malaysia, Vietnam, Mexico, Japan, and Taiwan have since joined suit. President Barack Obama has made the TPP one the primary goals of his administration.
Late last week, both the House and the Senate approved the President’s request to a fast track, or trade promotion authority, bill which enables the White House to negotiate trade agreements with no revision or oversight from Congress. The provision was, for the most part, opposed by Democrats.
Enter Elizabeth Warren. Last week, the progressive Senator from Massachusetts who, along with Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), penned an open letter to Obama.
“Your Administration has deemed the draft text of the agreement classified and kept it hidden from public view, thereby making it a secret deal… It is currently illegal for the press, experts, advocates, or the general public to review the text of this agreement. And while you noted that Members of Congress may ‘walk over … and read the text of the agreement’ — as we have done — you neglected to mention that we are prohibited by law from discussing the specifics of that text in public.”
Thanks to WikiLeaks, what we do know about the Trans-Pacific Partnership isn’t good – unless you’re a corporation, of course. By the way, major multinational corporations and lobbyists have been privy to the finer details of TPP negotiations since the beginning. (Wait a minute, if corporations are people, then shouldn’t the people get to read it, too?)
A big source of contention with the TPP is the investor-state dispute provision, which will affect everything from the environment to health and safety.
The investor-state dispute provision essentially hands corporations the license to sue governments directly, outside of domestic courts, if a piece of legislation undermines the corporation’s ability to make profits. Jonathan Weisman for The New York Times wrote, “companies and investors would be empowered to challenge regulations, rules, government actions and court rulings — federal, state or local — before tribunals organized under the World Bank or the United Nations.”
Similar investor-state dispute provisions have existed since the 1960s, but critics say the TPP will make it easier for corporations to launch claims against federal governments. One such case occurred in 2012 when the U.S. company Lone Pine sued the Canadian government for $250 million because of a ban on fracking. (For more examples, read this document from Citizen.org.)
According to WikiLeaks, which released the much sought after Environment Chapter in January, the TPP’s environmental provision is noteworthy “for its absence of mandated clauses or meaningful enforcement measures. The dispute settlement mechanisms it creates are cooperative instead of binding; there are no required penalties and no proposed criminal sanctions. With the exception of fisheries, trade in ‘environmental’ goods and the disputed inclusion of other multilateral agreements, the Chapter appears to function as a public relations exercise.”
Other concerns include reports that the TPP will offer corporations incentives for creating offshore jobs in low-wage countries, increase the cost of pharmaceuticals, and could adversely affect privacy and freedom of speech on the internet.
What is even more disconcerting than what is or what isn’t in the TPP is the fact that the draft agreement has been kept secret from the public. Obama would never have been elected in 2008 if it had not been for the most unprecedented voter turnout and level of civic engagement in modern history. Now, American citizens do not even have the opportunity to perform their civic duty in regards to a significant international agreement because the contents of such are unknown. This breach of trust further fuels American apathy and the eternally frustrating sentiment that your vote doesn’t count.