Gittins: Copyright is a big deal
The Americans understand that intellectual property is now the main thing they sell the rest of the world, including us. Ross Gittins explains.PT3M25S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2z2vz 620 349 December 10, 2013
According to someone called Oscar Ameringer, politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich, by promising to protect each from the other. However, when Tony Abbott spoke at the Business Council's 30th anniversary dinner last week, he was very much in protecting-big-business mode.
''On election night, not quite three months ago, I declared that Australia is under new management and once more open for business,'' he told the captains of industry. ''My business - the business of government - should be making it easier for you to do your business because government doesn't create prosperity, business does.
''Governments' job is to make it easier for good businesses to do their best … that's why almost everything we've done over the past three months has been to make it easier for Australians to do business.''
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
It's possible, of course, that Abbott didn't really mean all that. Perhaps he was just greasing up business people because they were who he happened to be speaking to. Maybe next week he'll tell a bunch of consumers he's doing it all for them.
It's too early to tell just whose interests the Abbott government is seeking to advance. Maybe it doesn't yet know itself.
But I get a bit twitchy when I hear politicians running the line that what's good for General Motors is good for America.
I worry when I hear allegations that Australia bugged the cabinet room of a friendly nation not in the national interest but in the interest of a particular Australian company. Then that one of the politicians at the time has since become an adviser to the company.
I confess to being concerned about what deal Trade Minister Andrew Robb is doing in our name at the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations in Singapore this week.
The partnership is a trade treaty the US wants with 11 other Pacific rim countries: Canada and Mexico, Chile and Peru, Australia and New Zealand, Japan and Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Vietnam.
The US has been negotiating the treaty since 2006 in what it has insisted be complete secrecy. Although it has no doubt been consulting with its own big companies, and it's a safe bet our business lobby groups have been briefed about the contents of the treaty and have advised our government on their views and goals, the rest of us aren't meant to know what's going on.
Parliament will have to be told the content of the done deal before it votes to ratify any treaty the government has agreed to, but that's all. It's ''need to know'' and you, dear voter, don't need to know. Leave it to the adults.
Well, not quite. Last month one of the draft treaty's 29 chapters, on intellectual property, was published by WikiLeaks.
This week one country's detailed description of the state of negotiations was leaked. So we know a fair bit about what we're not supposed to know. And what we know isn't terribly reassuring.
What I know about the US government's approach to trade agreements - which doesn't seem to have changed since the deceptively named free-trade agreement we made with it in 2004 - is that its primary objective is to make the world a kinder, safer place for America's chief export, intellectual property; patents, copyright and trademarks, in the form of pharmaceuticals, films, books, software, music and much else.
To this end, the length of copyright would be extended beyond the 70 years to which it has already been extended, and copyright infringement would be made a criminal offence. It would be made easier for pharmaceutical companies to artificially extend the life of their patents and frustrate the activities of others wishing to produce generic versions.
It is clear this would greatly benefit America's big entertainment, software and drug companies.
What's equally clear is that it has no economic justification, being simple ''rent-seeking''; government intervention in markets to enhance the profits of particular companies.
Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox would be a prime beneficiary.
Since Australia is a net importer of intellectual property, our government ought to be in no doubt the Americans' demands are contrary to our economic interests.
The leaks reveal many dubious demands by the US, but none more so than its promotion of ''investor-state dispute settlement'' provisions, which would allow foreign companies to pursue legal actions against our government in foreign tribunals if, for example, it were to introduce policies they considered contrary to their interests.
This would give foreign companies an advantage local companies didn't have. The Productivity Commission found such provisions offered few benefits, but considerable policy and financials risks. The former Labor government had a blanket ban on agreeing to such clauses, but Robb's approach is more flexible.
Why would any country agree to such unreasonable demands? Because, in exchange, the Americans are holding out the promise of greatly enhanced access to their markets - in our case, for sugar and beef.
So what we're not supposed to know is that, if the rest of us get sold out, it will all be in aid of Australian farmers. The trouble with running the economy to benefit business is you end up harming some to help others.
But not to worry. The leaks suggest agreement on the treaty is a long way off.