THE trade deal know as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is not good news for the Hunter.
If passed, it will affect the day-to-day lives of locals, from how much they pay for medicines to the right of their councils to give preference to local suppliers.
Regional areas such as the Hunter are often left behind in trade deals, and will be hard hit. There will be far-reaching impacts on jobs growth, the operations of state-owned enterprises and environmental practices.
At a time when the Hunter needs government backing to help with the shift from coal mining and coal-fired power to clean energy, the future of the region could be affected by restrictions on government policies that encourage initiatives and practices that promote local employment.
The immediate problem is that the TPP negotiations are conducted in secret. We do know that the process is driven by the US government, which is representing the interests of its multinational companies.
Trade Minister Andrew Robb is Australia’s chief negotiator. If it was not for a few leaked documents we would not know what is going on.
Mr Robb has said that securing an increase in Australia’s sugar exports is a deal breaker.
But there are reports that he is going soft on clauses affecting the cost of cancer medicines and the introduction of criminal penalties for certain copyright infringements.
In regions such as the Hunter, where there are higher rates of people on pensions, the prospect of increased medicine costs will put lifesaving treatments out of the reach of many.
Currently, companies can patent their drugs for five years, as a form of compensation for time invested in research.
We are hearing the US is demanding eight or 12 years, meaning a much longer wait for the price of drugs to drop.
Pharmaceutical companies are some of the richest multinationals in the world, making billions of profits annually. This is where we see how the US government goes in hard for its corporations, pushing for the longer period when one company can profit from the drug.
The government could go along with the push from the US and Japan for the introduction of criminal penalties for non-commercial copyright breaches. A young person downloading music could end up in the criminal justice system.
This deal seems to be about more than trade. It is affecting the workings of our democracy. Whistleblowers , journalists and activists could come under suspicion and possibly be arrested if they reveal details about the contents of the TPP deal.
Probably the most controversial aspect is the provision that would allow foreign investors to sue any level of government if their profits are reduced by any Australian law or policy.
The Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) puts at risk our labour, public health and environmental standards. ISDS clauses are already included in many operating trade agreements and by corporations, and governments have been sued by corporations. In Canada the provisional Quebec government is being sued by the US Lone Pine energy company because it was required to suspend its gas fracking operations to conduct an environmental study.
The federal government is also being sued under an ISDS provision by Philip Morris over the loss of profits arising from the cigarette plain packaging legislation. If this tobacco giant wins it will cost the Australian public millions of dollars in compensation.
If any Hunter council decided to adopt a ban on plastic bags or plastic water bottles, as some Australian councils have already done, they also could be sued.
Lee Rhiannon is Greens senator for NSW