|Image source: www.dfat.gov.au|
In the recent election campaign, Tony Abbott made much of the supposed threat to our sovereignty from people seeking asylum in Australia. The Abbott government even went as far as to name its refugee policy "operation sovereign borders" and militarise the operation by appointing a 3-star general to oversee it.
However, while desperate people seeking asylum on leaky fishing boats are characterised as a threat to our sovereignty worthy of a military response, a true threat to Australia's sovereignty has quietly become government policy.
On the eve of the last election the Coalition quietly released its trade policy [PDF] which significantly changed the previous government's approach to investor state dispute settlements (ISDS) in trade treaties. ISDS' are clauses which allow multinational corporations to sue national governments that are signatories to a treaty for passing laws that are harmful to the interests of these corporations. These cases are not heard in national courts but in tribunals that are often presided over by representatives of multinational corporations - hardly independent arbiters.
This effectively allows multinational corporations to over-ride government's powers effect legislation without the threat of significant legal action. Already, Australia is being sued in Hong Kong by tobacco companies for passing a law to enforce plain packaging of cigarettes. This law was passed by both houses of the Australian parliament and confirmed by the High Court, however, the ISDS in a bilateral treaty now has the potential to penalise the Australian Government for performing its democratic function.
The previous government rejected the use of ISDS' as not being in the national interest, however, the Abbott Government's trade policy remains open to the use of ISDS'. The Abbott Government has stated that it is keen to conclude free-trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - a treaty negotiated in secret that contains ISDS'.
Leaked sections of the TPP indicate it will potentially undermine fair access to copyright material and limit environmental protection laws, public health measures and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Governments will be limited to legislate in these areas by the threat of serious financial penalties - even if it is in the national interest to legislate.
At the recent APEC conference Malaysian Prime Minister Razak characterised the TPP as:
"impinge[ing] fundamentally the sovereign right of the country [Malaysia] to make regulation and policy''.This curtailment of a government's sovereign power represents not only a threat to democracy, but a fundamental shift in political power from the citizenry to multinational organisations.
When the Coalition said that 'Australia was open for business' what they really meant was that 'Australian sovereignty was for sale'.