Trading insults: Australia and the TPPA

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.

Free trade agreement threatens PBS

For more than a year the Federal Government has been negotiating one of the largest free trade deals in history, yet most Australians have no idea that it will impact their most basic healthcare needs.

The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) will cover twelve Pacific Rim countries including Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States. Negotiations are being conducted in secret – what little is known about the deal has been gleaned from draft chapters published by Wikileaks in late 2013.

The leaked healthcare chapter suggests that the United States is playing hardball with Australian health subsidies. International pharmaceutical companies have long objected to the Australian Government’s stance on subsidized medicine and the availability of cheaper generic medicines in the Australian market. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America in particular, is lobbying the United States Government to ensure that company profits are prioritized in national health policy decisions.

The TPPA could impact medicine affordability through several different routes: by delaying the availability of cheaper generic medicines; by altering the operation of the PBS making it more difficult to keep costs down; or by enabling pharmaceutical companies to sue the government over its pharmaceutical companies. These changes would increase the cost of the PBS for the government and taxpayers.

While the Australian Government has given some assurances about maintaining PBS subsidies, its desire to push through aspects of the deal favorable to Australian exporters mean that bargaining is inevitable. Indeed, there have already been indications that the government will allow state investor dispute settlement mechanisms that would give foreign companies, including pharmaceutical manufacturers, the right to sue the government for creating unfavorable market conditions through policies and subsidies.

Any changes to PBS costs incurred as a result of reduced subsidies and availability of generic medicines are likely to be passed on to the consumer. Out-of-pocket expenses are one of the most significant barriers to prescription use; in 2005, 22% of Australians reported skipping a dose or not filling a prescription due to cost. If proposals under the TPPA are accepted, these costs could soar, with families on low incomes struggling to pay for medicines that are sorely needed.

One such family told of changes to the PBS that would radically affect their standard of living.

“As the mother of two children with chronic illnesses, any change to the PBS, no matter how minor, will deeply and unfairly impact us and many families who are struggling to stretch their budget to pay for essential medicines,” said the Melbourne mother, who did not wish to be named.

“PBS benefits assist in keeping the costs of essential medications manageable, although it still stretches the family budget, even with a carers allowance,” she said.

“One of my children is currently required to take ten different medications. A number of drugs are simply a matter of trial and error – if one doesn’t work, it will need to be changed very quickly, which again adds to the cost.”

“There are already so many costs associated with having a sick child. We can’t afford to pay more just because a multinational wants to increase its profits.”

The threat to the PBS is so real that Michael Moore CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia has said “It will cost Australian lives if we accept rules in the TPPA that prevent us from introducing innovative public health policies in the future.”

Dr Margaret Chan, Director of the World Health Organisation, has also expressed concern over the scale of TPPA healthcare proposals, recently telling the sixty-seventh World Health Assembly in Geneva that foreign investment agreements “handcuff governments and restrict their policy space.”

She went on to say, “Some Member States have expressed concern that trade agreements currently under negotiation could significantly reduce access to affordable generic medicines. If these agreements open trade yet close access to affordable medicines, we have to ask: Is this really progress at all, especially with the costs of care soaring everywhere?”

The only way the Australian Government can truly reassure the public and health professionals that they are not ceding control of Australian healthcare policy is to be more transparent about the substance of TPPA negotiations.

Control of Australian health policy and the future of the PBS should not be traded away in a quest to increase exports and economic development. Australian health should be put ahead of healthy profits.

FWDing digital campaigning in Australia

Despite every progressive campaigner working across the globe having the phrase ‘Obama style campaign’ etched onto their tongues, the field of digital campaigning in Australia is still a burgeoning one. It often requires a combination of psychological strategy, tech skills, graphic design and data analysis that can be hard to manage all at once.

It was into this space that the FWD Digital Campaigning Conference was born in 2012. Modelled on the Electronic Campaigning Forum in the UK, FWD is targeted specifically at the Australian not-for-profit digital campaigning and communication world, creating a space to network, share stories and learn from one another about their specific industry skills. The inaugural event saw 175 digital campaigners come together at Melbourne University over a two day period to hear from their peers as well as select international guest speakers.

Fast forward a year and FWD 2013 again aimed to foster and support the digital community in Australia. On November 6, 225 eager online experts arrived at the Rendezvous Grand Hotel for an action-packed day of workshops, panels and presentations.

It was great to see so many people come together from such a wide range of organisations, all clearly eager to share and learn from each other about digital campaigning. It’s a developing field – these days there are degrees in digital communications and marketing, but many at FWD started out by learning from each other and adapting their own successes and failures. Digital specialities morphed from traditional campaigning methods, experimenting with how these work in digital spaces as well as forcing many to develop entirely new tactics and techniques.

The FWD audience was incredibly diverse, with representatives from the environment, animal rights, international aid, human rights, union, political and government sectors. Guest speakers came from a range of Australian and international organisations, all bringing their own individual knowledge and expertise. One of many highlights was keynote speaker Jess Kutch, a digital strategist and social change entrepreneur who co-founded Coworker.org, an online platform for people to advocate for improvements in the workplace.

FWD 2013 also saw the launch of EMC’s Digital Insights report – researching and benchmarking digital campaigning in Australia.

As we continue to grow and support the Australian community of digital campaingers, events like FWD show that gathering to share and learn from each other in person is – shock horror – just as powerful (if not more so) than using the online tools we live on every day.

Check out some of the presentations from FWD 2013.

Essential Media Communications was a proud sponsor of FWD 2012 and 2013. Photo: David Paris

First published on Essential Media Communications

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