Free trade: it’s such an innocuous phrase. It sounds like it would open borders, allowing us to buy and sell with the rest of the world, enabling our entrepreneurial spirits to reap the benefits of globalisation. Yet a global trade deal currently being negotiated, largely behind closed doors, will have wide-reaching impacts on Australia’s cultural and artistic outputs, denigrating the quality and level of Australian content on television screens, in cinemas and on radio stations.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) is a sprawling multinational trade agreement that will encompass a number of countries situated around the Pacific Rim, including Australia.
We’ve only seen glimpses of the detail in the TPPA document thus far, but even these have been enough to reveal the intended influence of the US media industry and its designs on overseas markets such as Australia.
Why would US media-makers want to influence a trade deal such as the TPPA? As with most things, it comes down to making more money through the ever-increasing globalisation of media. This will be achieved by giving greater control to a smaller number of corporations thus making it harder and harder for grass roots artists to gain the foothold they need in the industry without pandering to the interests of mega-corporations.
Current provisions on Australian media set minimum levels of Australian content in the films and television you watch. The most controversial aspect of the TPPA – investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS) – could threaten any future changes to or strengthening of these content provisions and ultimately result in far less Australian content.
ISDS makes it possible for companies to sue governments if they introduce regulations that may diminish companies’ profits under the terms of the trade deal. As a result, any move by Australia to enforce quotas or other protections for Australian content could potentially be challenged by those with vested interests. This is precisely what organisations such as the Motion Picture Association of America want: it directly benefits Hollywood and the wider US content-production sector, enabling them to sell more to Australian audiences, while making it harder for our own local (and less funded) projects to survive.
It’s the diversity and cultural significance of Australian content that is at risk here. As a relatively small industry facing the behemoth of Hollywood, Australian-made content requires quotas to allow for a guaranteed demand level – one that feeds and supports thousands of Australian jobs.
More Australian content means more people exposed to Australian music, art and film, which means a stronger arts industry and more jobs.
We’ve already seen comments from the US Trade Representative Michael Froman calling the TPPA ‘the most transparent trade negotiation in history’, which it surely is from Hollywood’s point of view. The MPAA has had unprecedented access to negotiations at the US government level, allowing it to push for their own interests.
The Australian public would no doubt reject the MPAA’s stance if it were given the opportunity. Polling undertaken by the Australia Institute in 2013 showed 64 per cent of people do not support any deal that would result in fewer Australian-made programs on television. Subsequent polling by Essential Research in May this year showed half of those surveyed were concerned about closed negotiations with little to no media or public scrutiny of the detail in the deal.
In its submission to DFAT regarding a related yet entirely different trade deal, the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), the Music Council of Australia points out that that important aspects of Australia’s culture can only survive with financial or regulatory support and that culture should not be on the table in international trade negotiations.
In past trade deals of this magnitude, media companies, performers and producers have been content with ‘cultural carve-out clauses’ that protect and preserve local media content. These clauses redress the power differential between two very different competing markets, allowing them to co-exist amid an ever-shrinking global sphere of trade.
But tinkering at the edges of such an all-encompassing trade deal misses the point entirely and encourages the government to believe they can get away with horse-trading on sensitive cultural issues. In the context of the TPPA, any simplistic cultural carve-out would not be enough to alleviate widespread concerns over the impact of the trade deal. In fact, it would only serve to highlight the carefree nature of trade-offs that occur behind closed doors with almost no public input.
It is important that Australia preserves its capacity to support cultural and artistic industries relevant to our local style, identity and way of life. If the Australian government is truly committed to supporting a vibrant and varied Australian cultural sector, it is imperative that global negotiations such as the TPPA do not impinge on the production, distribution and support of local creative content.
Ultimately, it is the secrecy surrounding these negotiations that is most worrying of all. Australians have a right to know what is currently being traded away, especially when it has the end result of bypassing our ability to control our own affairs through our own laws.
Is the Abbott Government so focused on acquiescing to the demands of US lobbyists that they will risk destroying Australia’s unique (yet increasingly fragile) cultural arts and media scene? Allowing the public to see what is on the table at the negotiations is the only way to begin alleviating those fears.