ABC | 27 November 2016
Scrapping TPP won’t make a lick of difference
He has finally done it. The man formerly referred to in sections of the Australian media as "billionaire extremist", and more recently known as President-elect Donald Trump, has killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
He promised to do so all along. But in the furious bout of policy backpedalling and broken promises since his victory, our overlords in Canberra clearly thought there just might be a chance Mr Trump would persist with the free trade deal.
Canberra was heavily-invested in the concept in the 12-nation free trade agreement. And not just the Coalition.
The Opposition when in government toiled away on the project for years. But whichever party is in power get the glory and the photo ops when the deal is actually done.
So, how much worse off will we all be now that it has been consigned to the dustbin? Err, the short answer is it will not make a lick of difference. In fact, we may be better off.
For a start, there is nothing to be lost by not proceeding with a plan that was never implemented in the first place.
More importantly, the supposed benefits to Australia from the TPP were always illusory and were never subjected to proper analysis.
In fact, the Federal Government refused point blank to allow its own Productivity Commission to cast a critical eye over the deal.
The only immediate loss is that of face by the politicians who artificially inflated electoral expectations over the supposed super trade deal.
There is, however, a danger that, emboldened by hubris, the new president decides to reimpose old style trade barriers and inadvertently start a trade war.
Free trade deal rarely about trade
So, what exactly was wrong with the TPP? It is difficult to know where to start.
The problem with free trade deals is they rarely are about trade. In fact, trade usually is a side issue. And the TPP was a classic case in point.
The TPP primarily was a United States regional diplomacy document — a way to cement diplomatic and defence ties around the Pacific and shut China out of the picture.
The secondary objective, from America’s point of view, was to get a better deal for its intellectual property rights, particularly for pharmaceutical, communications and entertainment corporations.
It wanted to extend patents on US products in order to shut generic manufacturers out for longer.
Plus, it argued to maintain tariffs and quotas for its rural industries unable to compete on the world stage.
That is anti-competitive, highly protectionist and certainly does not qualify as free trade.
Then there was the thorny issue of Investor State Dispute Resolutions.
That is a measure that allows a foreign corporation to launch legal action against a sovereign government if it enacts legislation or regulations that harm a company’s business interests.
The hearings are held in secret at a secret location — an idea that does not quite gel with the concept of "free" or democracy.
The combined effect of all these measures was to elevate the legal status of multi-national corporations, any of which openly flout their tax obligations, above the rights of citizens in the countries in which they operate.
To give our federal pollies credit, they did manage to face off against the US and refused to give ground on extending patents, particularly on medicines.
But that was only after an outcry from those who understood what went down in the US-Australia free trade agreement more than a decade ago.
Just as now, it was intellectual property rights that formed a large part of that deal — a baffling 11,500-word chapter that is open to legal interpretation and allows firms to cherry pick their obligations.
Deal adds cost, complexity to international trade
When it was signed in 2004, Tony Abbott was health minister and promised the deal would not have any detrimental impact on Australia’s health system and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Unfortunately, as a result of that trade deal, from 2007 on, the Australian Government could no longer use a method called "reference pricing" to screw down the cost of medicines.
Ironically, in his first budget, then treasurer Joe Hockey cited the soaring cost of health care as one reason for an austerity drive.
"Over the past decade, the Pharmaceutical Benefits System has increased by 80 per cent," he told the Parliament.
Economists generally are in favour of free trade. But few endorse free trade agreements, particularly bilateral agreements.
That is because, rather than enhancing free trade, they distort trade patterns. Rather than do the best deal possible, trading partners engage with each other because of a preferential agreement.
The Australian National University’s Crawford School estimates the Australia-US free trade agreement costs us about $53 billion a year.
During the past few years, the Productivity Commission has penned a series of damning reports on our free trade deals.
The commission argues that trade deals add to the cost and complexity of international trade and found that, in any case, hardly anyone uses them. No wonder the Government ran scared about giving the commission a look in on the TPP.
New recession won’t make anyone great again
In a wide-ranging report in 2010, the commission pointed out the best way to take advantage of free trade is to dismantle your own trade barriers.
We have already done that. So too have many other nations. And that is one reason why free trade deals these days deliver very little in terms of economic benefits and instead have become a mask for anti-competitiveness and protectionism.
Mr Trump may have done Australia a favour in scrapping the TPP. But if he acts on his pledge to reimpose old style trade barriers, Professor Warwick McKibbin and Dr Andy Stoeckel reckon Australia will end up a major casualty.
Imposing a 40 per cent tariff would cause America’s GDP to decline 1.2 per cent. If everyone else retaliated, they estimate the US economy would shrink more than 5 per cent and enter a deep recession, sparking a 5.6 per cent fall in Australian economic growth.
That will not make anyone great again.