Today I attended an Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) event about the TPP. Among the panel members, included Michael Froman, the US trade representative and chief advisor to President Obama on issues of International Trade and Investment. (big shot!!)
For those you don’t know, the Trans-Pacific Partnership(TPP) agreement is a trade deal between 12 countries including Malaysia and America whose main objective is to balance out the power and influence China has over the region. But the TPP has been opposed by many NGOs and special interest groups, for good reason–it’s secret. The TPP has garnered such a bad reputation, it’s sort of like the Justin Bieber of trade agreements, everyone knows about it, but nobody likes it.
The event went on for a good 40 minutes, before your friendly neighbourhood tech blogger got a hold of the mic to ask about the secrecy of the trade agreement.Prior to that everyone was talking about Bumi Policies,Price of Medicine and impacts to SMEs. I really didn’t understand why no one spoke about the tremendous secrecy surrounding the talks and how the secrecy itself is fundamentally undemocratic and bad enough for Malaysians to reject the agreement.
This secrecy is the one reason every Malaysian should oppose the TPP. Everything else is moot, because we can’t confirm the documents we’ve seen until it’s made publicly available to the citizens of the countries negotiating the deal. Would you sign a housing loan agreement without the ability to first read the contract? Yet, here with the TPP we have a legally binding 29-chapter multi-lateral agreement that very few people have seen, but will impact all Malaysians once signed. How do we know the prices of medicines are going up? Oh that’s right, we read it from Wikileaks …. must definitely be true then. Sorry let’s move on.
How secretive are they?
Here’s how secretive the deal us, up until 2012, Senator Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, the Committee in charge of over-seeing foreign trade, had not yet seen the TPP documents. Senator Wyden later complained that he would like to have seen elected representatives of the American people granted the same access to the TPP documents as paid representatives of PhRMA, Halliburton and the Motion Picture Association. You heard that right, while members of US Congress had yet to see the deal, 600 corporate advisors, that span all the way from Abbot laboratories to Zippo Manufacturing, were already appointed as ‘trusted advisors’ in the negotiation. I wonder whose interest they were protecting?
Later, USTR granted members of congress the ‘privilege’ of seeing the documents, but there were still significant hoops to jump before they could be viewed. Firstly, members of congress had to physically go to the USTR office, which they could see the documents, but only alone, with no members of staff accompanying them, and no laptop, phone or even a piece of paper. Even members of Obama’s own party called this sort of disclosure insulting.
So USTR relented, and did 3 things. They deposited a document at Capitol Hill, they allowed staff members access and the documents would be published 60 days prior to it being signed. So 60 days to read, digest and formulate an opinion on a 10,000 page document is what President Obama feels is transparency these days. Also, noticed the word ‘deposited’, which basically means it’s still a physical document, which probably has no ctrl+f feature.
But Why the secrecy?
According to Senator Elizabeth Warren, it has to be secret because the trade deal sucks, and if it were made public the people would oppose it, you gotta love the Senator when she says:
The question is, Why are the trade talks secret? You’ll love this answer. Boy, the things you learn on Capitol Hill,” Warren said. “I actually have had supporters of the deal say to me ‘They have to be secret, because if the American people knew what was actually in them, they would be opposed.’”
-Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)
In the mean-time, Senator Ron Wyden, who I deeply admir(ed), did something shocking. He proposed a fast-track bill on Congress, which grants congress only the power to approve or reject the TPP without any authority to change any aspect of the trade agreement.
Folks, there’s a reason why there are 3 branches of Government, it’s so the other two can prevent any one from getting too powerful. Fast-tracking the TPP grants so much power to the executive, that the legislative becomes almost emasculated from fulfilling it’s duties as an oversight. Trade should be looked after by Congress, not secret panels elected by the President advised by 600 corporate advisors–and all of this from an administration that promised to be the most transparent in history.
They didn’t really brief Congress
Before I go on to implications to Malaysia, one last bit that my faithful readers would already know. When Michael Froman, or President Obama say Congress has been briefed, you can bet your underwear they don’t mean that. President Obama claimed Congress was briefed on the NSA bulk surveillance programs and used that to justify the program, but when congress got to vote for de-funding the NSA after the Snowden Revelations, the vote for the motion was bi-partisan, and the NSA survived only by the skin of its teeth. Obviously Congress wasn’t happy with the NSA, and clearly they were NOT briefed.The only people ‘briefed’ were members of Senate Intelligence Committee (which includes Ron Wyden), and they were sworn to secrecy. Congress has more then 400 members, only 8 are members of that committee. (You can read more of that in my article on the Snowden Revelations)
How much oversight can democratically elected members of congress exercise if they’re sworn to secrecy and in most cases are kept in the dark of the very things they’re supposed to oversee?
That’s how bad this is, but Malaysia is worse.
Prior to this event, IDEAS hosted a TPP debate, that had Klang Member of Parliament Charles Santiago (my home boy), debate against the TPP. What documents did the MP bring to the debate? Copies of wikileaks articles, because even he doesn’t have access to the TPP documents.
Think about that, in order to debate a Multilateral free trade agreement, that covers multiple aspects of the economy and has significant legal and social implications to Malaysia, a member of our own Parliament has to get his documents from an estranged aussie living at Ecuadorian Embassy in London. That’s a whole new level of dodginess right there. Doesn’t help that Charles is from Klang either, whole bunch of dodgy characters from that part of Malaysia ;).
Don’t you think in a democracy, if such an important agreement is negotiated by our government, that citizens should get information from our own government rather than Wikileaks? Aren’t we ashamed that if it were not for Ecuadorians putting up an Australian in London, we won’t have ANY documents on the massively important trade agreement?
And of course, you can bet the kitchen sink that Parliament is going to follow the fast-track model. And because BN have the majority, and use the whip system–there really is very little hope that the TPP ever seeing light of day in a Parlimentary debate, it’s going to pass without ever being scrutinized. Plus, the opposition MPs don’t show up for debates either.
So I found it strange that BFM, and ISIS (that’s a think tank that should really change its name) asked Mr. Froman about certain provisions in the TPP and his thoughts about it.They should instead have asked for the documents to be published for further public scrutiny before any discussions about specific provisions should even begin.
Other key highlights
Other key highlights from the hour long talk was that Tabacco was a huge issue, I never knew about this, and am deeply interested, so watch this space.
Also, some dude decided to interrupt the conversation and spread a banner across the room in the middle of the discussion. Now I’m all for free speech, and the chairperson did specifically welcome him to ask his question later, but he left immediately after his little show–even though he was specifically given first dibs on questions. I think in a country where freedom of expression is so rare, people don’t know what to do with it when it’s given to them–which is just a sad statement of truth.
Anyway, back to the TPP
We can grant the government a blank cheque to negotiate on our behalf and trust they have our interest at heart, but I must remind you, the last time that happened, a Chinese guy got a boat load of Cristal Champange to party with Paris Hilton. So maybe we don’t repeat that mistake this time around.
Maybe we want to truly question our government, and send a loud message that we need clear and transparent ways to discuss trade agreements without cordoning off ordinary citizens. There have been clear successful models of transparent trade discussions in the past, and we should follow that.(hint: Google Marrakesh treaty)
The secrecy around the deal, is the one and only reason you should oppose the TPP. After the secrecy has been lifted, maybe there’ll be more reasons to oppose it, but until then no one can tell you for sure whether the policies are pro-medicine, or pro-bumiputera, because the people that know the details are sworn to secrecy and the people who can talk don’t know the details. A trade agreement this important shouldn’t be kept secret.
Finally, I want to leave you with a question. If the TPP were truly about balancing the power of China in the region, why is it that the leaked Intellectual Property documents we have mention extension of copyright duration? What the hell does extended copyright have to do with balancing China’s dominance? Why would two nations who wish to trade with each other at a political level, even bother with extending copyright durations, particularly when most countries in the TPP already are members of the Berne convention?
Don’t you think that represents corporate interest more than national interest, specifically that one corporation that’s associated with a certain mouse? Now multiply that by the 600 corporate advisors, and you’ve got yourself the full 29-chapter TPP.