Now that Congress has provided President Obama with Trade Promotion Authority as we enter the last phase of the TPP negotiations, the treaty seems likely to go ahead. What is left for Australian authorities to think about?

While the TPP draft will come before the Australian parliament for consideration, by that stage there will not be much to ponder. The negotiations will have finished, and the decision will be 'take it or leave it'. We might ask ourselves, just as a thought experiment, whether the world might be better off without the TPP, or with a different TPP, but such options will not be on the table.

Whatever doubts we might have about aspects of the treaty, we should and will sign up. The TPP will create a 'club' of countries which give each other favoured treatment. To be left outside the club would be disadvantageous. 

This is a familiar position, given the ubiquity of these preferential trade agreements, whether bilateral (eg. the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement) or plurilateral (like the TPP). For example, once New Zealand milk producers had been given privileged access to China via their FTA, the sensible action for other milk suppliers was to try to do a preferential trade deal which would restore equal access. Is it any wonder that once the WTO's multilateral focus was eroded by these trade-distorting preferential agreements, the result was that we got more of them, each trying to get ahead of the competition and/or restore a competitive position?

Thus by the same logic, if the coming negotiations successfully settle the details, we should sign up to the TPP. In the meantime, there is still room for greater transparency which will at least tell the Australian public what is happening:

For instance, DFAT might make public whatever side-deals and 'carve-outs' were done between the US and Japan in order to get Tokyo to sign on. Were our own producers (especially beef exporters) squeezed out in the process?

We should also be given a clear understanding of the intellectual property (IP) rules that might have changed, perhaps to our disadvantage. IP is complex. It's in Australia's interests to encourage global innovation, and for this, the innovators have to be rewarded. But by how much and in what way? The outcome makes a big difference to countries like Australia, which uses far more IP than it produces.

Take pharmaceuticals. We want the benefits of the latest technology and should be ready to pay for it. But it makes no economic sense to allow drug-testing results done by one firm to remain secret for years so that rival firms have to go to the expense and trouble of doing the same testing (unnecessary costs which are ultimately passed on to consumers). Let's hear if these kinds of inefficient rules are being protected by the TPP.

Will the TPP foster a continuation of the sort of manipulation seen in pharmaceuticals in the past, where minor product variations are given fresh protection as the existing patent nears its expiry, thus 'ever-greening' the flow of royalties from a single innovation?

The moment is not far away when it will no longer be tenable (if it ever was) to argue that negotiations are inconsistent with transparency. We will sign up, so why not set it all out? The pluses and the minuses, the failed negotiation ploys as well as the successful ones, the trade-offs that had to be made. It won't change the outcome for the TPP, but might put Australia in a better position for trade negotiations yet to come.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user TPP Media Australia.