The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is close to the make-or-break stage. It will either get US Congressional blessing soon or lose momentum and slip from the agenda. So it is surprising how little public debate there is in Australia about its important ramifications. For an excellent exception, see Peter Martin.

Trans-Pacific Partnership discussions on the margins of the APEC Leader meetings in Bali, Indonesia, 2013

How did Australia go from being a leading exponent of multilateral trade to being ready to sign a preferential trade arrangement universally acknowledged to be inferior to the WTO's multilateral model?

The short answer is that the global trading environment has shifted. The WTO is in stasis. The only path forward seems to be either multilateral agreements with very limited subject coverage (like the Bali agreement), or 'coalitions of the willing' – agreements between a smaller number of countries who are often regional partners. And then there are bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) such as the ones Australia has recently signed with China and with Japan. These contradict the multilateral spirit of the WTO. Exporters are happy to get access to a new market, but FTAs may divert imports from the cheapest foreign supplier by giving preference to the FTA partner. Certainly the plethora of bilateral FTAs is a sub-optimal outcome.

An alternative method could be multi-member plurilateral agreements that would bundle up the relevant FTAs and enforce consistency in their conditions. With more members, there is less trade diversion. The ASEAN-based Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is an example.

But the TPP represents a different model again, one which aims to impose a set of consistent rules (especially 'behind the border' rules) on the participants. 

Arrangements like the TPP can have a particular negotiating dynamic which helps overcome some of the deficiencies of bilateral FTAs. Sensitivity over issues such as agriculture and services could succumb to majority peer pressure. The 'noodle-bowl' of divergent rules-of-origin might be made uniform. The narrow trade focus of the bilateral agreements might be broadened to include 'behind the border' issues, as envisaged in the TPP.

Some progress is better than just lamenting the failure of the WTO, and these arrangements won't prevent greater multilateralisation later. It's possible to envisage the TPP and RCEP merging to form the APEC-based Free-Trade Area of Asia and the Pacific (FTAAP). That would overcome one problem with the current negotiations: the biggest trading nations – America and China – don't share a common agreement. If the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership goes ahead between the US and Europe, there may even be a parallel arrangement with similar rules.

Thus it's easy to understand how Australia has moved over time from being one of the most energetic players in the GATT/WTO framework to actively seeking bilateral FTAs and participating in both the RCEP and TPP negotiations. To stay faithful to the multilateral ideals would have seen us lose competitive advantage (for example, to New Zealand with its hugely successful FTA with China). There are political considerations too: RCEP serves Australia's regional objectives, and the TPP supports our relationship with America. 

That said, the wide-ranging rule-making aspect of the TPP raises some issues. Are all these rules in our interests? One of the few things economists agree on is that multilateral trade openness gives advantages to all participating countries. The TPP's rules, on the other hand, may advantage one country over another.

Who writes the TPP rules? You might think that the rules of the lofty 'platinum-standard' TPP would be hammered out by a group of high-minded technocrats, with the world's collective interests as their priority. 

Unfortunately, this is not so.

Proposals on intellectual property, for example, reflect the vested interest of pharmaceutical manufacturers who want longer patent protection. Hollywood (famous for engineering the Mickey Mouse Protection Act giving Walt Disney products a century of royalties) will undoubtedly influence the outcome. Our main hope is that there will be some counter-balancing vested interests (perhaps in Silicon Valley). There may even be some salvation in the voice of public advocacy, arguing for shorter protection to allow cheaper generic drugs to reach the US market more quickly, though vested interests are usually better funded than public advocates.

Bilateral horse-trading has also found its way into the TPP process. Japan was a late joiner in the negotiations, but politics in both Japan and the US strongly support Japan's entry (joining would strengthen Prime Minister Abe's 'third arrow' – structural change). These side deals, however, make the net balance of advantages harder to assess.

One element that was initially resisted by Australia was an investor-state dispute settlement chapter. Our opposition to this sort of sovereignty-overriding measure was strengthened by Philip Morris' attempt to resist Australia's world-leading anti-smoking measures, though our attitude has apparently softened. Given the issues ahead on climate change and the environment, we may well want to introduce laws which foreign investors will see as disadvantaging their Australian enterprises (restrictions on the use of brown coal might be an example). An investor-state dispute settlement mechanism could make it harder for Australia to introduce such measures.

If the peer-pressure dynamic of plurilateral agreements often fosters progress, this can also work to our disadvantage if our interests have been overridden. Just as we had no choice (for political reasons) but to sign off on the Australia-US FTA, not signing up to the TPP if it is finalised would be an admission of failure at the political level. We'll sign on, even to a disadvantageous treaty.

While there are good reasons for conducting these negotiations behind closed doors, the general principles of our approach shouldn't be secret. What issues do we feel strongly about? What do we have to give away and what will we win in return? We need more colour than can be found here. With an agreement possibly imminent, we need a public discussion to let the broader community judge whether this looks like a good deal. Time for a detailed speech from Trade Minister Andrew Robb.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.