As a trade deal between Australia and its allies edges closer towards completion, leading critics to warn of an impending “attack [on] internet freedoms,” a parliamentary committee has slammed the deal-making process saying it lacks adequate “oversight and scrutiny.”
The comments come as Australia engages in closed-door negotiations with 11 other countries over the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a trade agreement that could change the copyright and piracy landscape in Australia and have major ramifications for the way Australians access online content.
A joint-Parliamentary report on the TPP and other trade deals has declaimed that “not is all right with the current process” and that politicians and key stakeholders are being “kept in the dark” on the negotiation process.
The “Blind Agreement” report warns that under the current system, “Parliament is faced with an all-or-nothing choice” on whether or not to approve trade agreements and can only officially review trade laws once they’ve officially passed.
“This does not provide an adequate level of oversight and scrutiny,” the report reads. “Parliament should play a constructive role during negotiations and not merely rubber-stamp agreements that have been negotiated behind closed doors.”
The Committee, comprised of three Labor Senators, two Liberal Senators and one Senator from the Greens, made a series of 10 recommendations for reform. However, a “dissenting report” appended to the text noted these Coalition Senators “disagree with all of the findings and recommendations of the majority report” and that “Australia’s treaty-making system works well.”
The full text of the TPP has not been made public, with only select unverified chapters surfacing through Wikileaks, including a chapter covering intellectual property and copyright.
Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, also a member of the committee that drafted the Blind Agreement report, has heavily criticised the secrecy of TPP negotiations saying this IP chapter alone has the power to “attack internet freedoms and criminalise downloading.”
“We know from other leaks the TPP covers everything from giving America the right to put Australian Internet users under surveillance, to giving multinational companies the rights to sue governments for the laws they make,” said Senator Ludlam.
“Secrecy is no way to trade. We need to know what the government is preparing to trade away in our names.”
Australia’s Productivity Commission has also warned the TPP could bring a further tightening of digital freedoms, giving rights holders the power toincrease ‘technical protection measures’ such as geo-blocks or digital rights management (DRM) protections on content.
But it’s not just Australian politicians who have criticised the negotiation process, with US Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer recently taking to floor of the US Senate to explain the convoluted steps she needed to take to view the text of the massive trade agreement.
“Follow this: You can only take a few of your staffers who happen to have a security clearance, because, God knows why, this is secure, this is classified,” she said.
“The guard says…’You can take notes, but you have to give them back to me, and I’ll put them in a file.’ So I said: ‘Wait a minute. I’m going to take notes and then you’re going to take my notes away from me and then you’re going to have them in a file, and you can read my notes? Not on your life.'”
Despite concerns over transparency stateside, the US Senate last week voted to give President Barack Obama the power to “fast track” the TPP. This grants the President authority to put a final draft of the TPP before Congress for a ‘yes-or-no’ vote, but Congress will not have power to amend any part of the trade agreement.
Back at home, this kind of “all-or-nothing” approval was a key point of contention raised in the joint-Parliamentary report on the TPP.
But while the committee examining Australia’s deal-making future has called for reform on this front, amongst a total of 10 recommendations, the TPP marches closer to completion withFederal Trade Minister Andrew Robb saying less than a fortnight ago, “We are literally one week of negotiation away from completing this extraordinary deal.”