It’s been odd in recent days to witness so much political manoeuvring around a document that no-one outside the upper echelons of the world’s power elite has seen. When the rest of us are finally allowed to read the final text of the Trans Pacific Partnership, we’ll be able to make better sense of the contortions of politicians on all sides of the ocean. Right now, it’s like watching a succession of clumsy people, all of a certain age, fencing with a ghost.
In the Sydney Morning Herald, we were pre-emptively invited to salute the heroism of Trade Minister Andrew Robb. Robb said that ‘[US Trade Representative Mike] Froman and I got into an arm wrestle’ over extended monopoly rights on new drugs for pharmaceutical companies.
Reporter John Garnaut obligingly turned it into a story whose scope encompassed elements of David and Goliath and the Odd Couple: ‘Froman received his arm-wrestling partner in his fancy 12th-floor suite. Robb had only a tired-looking room which had been hastily cleared of beds, furniture and packets of chocolate-coated pretzels.’ Australia’s plucky Felix Unger prevailed when the arm wrestle became a staring contest: ‘In the end, it was the American who blinked.’
Robb modestly confided that he didn’t sleep much as he would have liked in the days leading up to the inking of the TPP, because he was toiling night and day to save Australia’s Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme from being wrecked by the drug companies.
All very laudable, but you can be sure that uppermost in his mind during those negotiations was the fact that the Senate wouldn’t pass anything that wrecked the PBS. This is also the body he is trying to soften up by bragging about what must be the most significant concession he wrung out – because if there was something more impressive, he’d be talking about that instead.
Robb desperately needs to bed down a good news story as best he can before we get to read the fine print, and discover which industries have been destroyed or sold out, and which workers headed for the scrap heap. The secrecy that has enveloped the negotiations has extended into their aftermath. It has afforded signatory governments ample time to add spin without informed disagreement.
Robb may yet have some sleepless nights, though. More clues that the agreement is not all sunshine and roses emerged on this side of the pond, when Hillary Clinton announced her opposition to a deal which, when Secretary of State, she helped set in train. This caused some anguish to the neoliberal centrists who are the most prominent voices in the Washington commentariat.
They and others were surprised because in her book, and in previous public statements, Clinton praised the deal as an integral part of the USA’s ‘pivot to Asia’. On this view, what’s more important than its specific provisions is locking key nations into a trading relationship with the US that excludes China.
It’s true, as President Obama put it, that the US is there to prevent China writing ‘the rules of global economy’. But it’s more important for its role in shoring up US hegemony against the rise of China.
It’s part of a broader effort to herd Pacific rim countries into a closer anti-China bloc. Australia, ever the loyal sheepdog, is helping. Really, Robb’s big talk of red lines should be weighed against the implausibility of any Australian government ever doing anything to seriously challenge the US on a foreign policy priority.
In this context, Clinton’s new-found dissatisfaction should be read as a tacit admission that this deal contains provisions that will do serious damage to US workers and the unions that represent them, and in turn do damage to her wobbly campaign, which badly needs to retain the support of organised labour.
Yes, she is tracking left to head off a surprisingly durable Bernie Sanders insurgency. But there are easier choices to make than this one, choices that don’t involve 180-degree reversals, and don’t endanger the passage of an Obama legacy item. Fast-track authority for the deal only just squeaked through congress. The abandonment of the deal by one of its architects may lead more legislators to wonder whether they can afford to support it.
If the USA puts parliamentary brakes on the deal, it won’t be because it was subject to anything resembling democratic deliberation. Throughout, it’s been amazing to watch Australian and US media alike acquiesce in the secrecy surrounding an agreement that will profoundly alter the lives of people in their nations.
Despite the fact that announced provisions include the capacity for corporations to sue governments for enacting regulation, and forbid public sector organisations from ‘competing’ with private entities, most major organs have blithely accepted that this is the way things are done. Even though governments may be literally trading away their capacity to make social policy behind closed doors, there seems to be far too broad an acceptance that this is simply ‘the process’.
Indeed, without the odd draft turning up on WikiLeaks, the process would have been entirely opaque. Even with Julian Assange’s efforts, it was difficult for all but the most committed to understand raw, protean documents written in high diplomatese. When citizens badly needed interpretation and investigation, they had to rely on a site that publishes secrets to keep them informed about the wholesale reframing of their economies.
In another manifestation of what Mark Fisher calls the ‘boring dystopia’ of late neoliberal times, we see the popular sovereignty disregarded in favour of horse-trading that is at once secretive and proudly elitist, and both antidemocratic and apparently unremarkable.
Image via 350.org.