The following piece was published 23 December 2013, SBS World News Australia Radio.
By Ildi Amon
Negotiators had hoped to finalise what could be the world's biggest free trade agreement by the end of 2013.
But a number of issues remain and talks on the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement will resume in 2014.
And in Australia, at least, there have been growing calls for the talks to be more transparent, with fears the agreement could have some negative implications.
Ildi Amon reports.
Negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement involve 12 countries which account for up to 40 per cent of the world's GDP.
Initial participants in the TPP on one side of the Pacific would include Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam.
On the other side are Canada, Chile, Mexico, Peru and the United States, with others able to join the pact later.
One Australian politician concerned about the proposed agreement is Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson.
In the last Senate session for the year, he moved a motion calling for negotiations on the agreement to be more open.
"It's largely been negotiated in secret over the last four years and it's very important to the Senate especially to the Greens, and I understand also to the Labor Party and a number of stakeholders across this country that the details of this Trade Agreement become public. Free trade is often pushed as being important for this country but there's also risks and costs of free trade. Recently we had a leaked chapter by WikiLeaks, only one of 30 chapters, which caused a lot of concern and this is a move to take the politics out of the release of this Free Trade Agreement and make it available to the public."
About one-third of Australian exports -- worth about $100-billion -- currently go to countries that would be included in the proposed agreement.
Alan Kirkland, from the consumer group, CHOICE, says it could leave Australian consumers worse off.
"This agreement could see prices on a range of goods go up for Australians - that's the biggest effect. So if we ban parallel imports to things like software, we will pay more for software. If we prevent Australians getting around geoblocking to get access to things like music and video and software on overseas sites, then we will see Australians pay more. That's our biggest concern with this treaty. We should not see our national interest, overridden by the interests of big American multinational companies."
Other groups are concerned the proposed free trade deal could give US drug companies longer patent protection, reducing access to cheaper generic drugs.
And Alan Kirkland from CHOICE says he's also concerned about a proposed dispute settlement provision, revealed in a draft leaked by WikiLeaks.
"What that will effectively do is tie the hands of the Australian government and Australian governments for many years to come, and we could actually see our government sued by foreign corporations. That's a very unusual thing and we don't think that should be in any treaty that Australia signs on to."
Ministers from the TPP countries met in Singapore in December in the hope of tying up final details, but failed to resolve outstanding issues.
Australia's Trade Minister Andrew Robb has said he wants the TPP to give Australia better market access for its agricultural products, and commercial benefits for service providers and investors.
He also wants improved rules for companies working together -- across countries -- to create, produce and deliver products.
Mr Robb has rejected claims the deal would negatively effect Australia's health system, or impact Australia's intellectual property and copyright laws.
And he says the government has consulted with stakeholders through more than 500 briefings.
But the Convenor of the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network Patricia Ranald says the Australian public has been left out of the debate.
"Trade agreements shouldn't tie the hands of government, prevent them from regulating in the public interest. And they shouldn't be making agreements which require Australia to change its domestic law about things like medicine or copyright, which is done in secrecy when these things should normally be decided through an open, democratic, parliamentary process. Domestic law should not be decided in secret negotiations in a trade agreement."
The now former policy director at the Institute of Public Affairs, Tim Wilson, says secrecy during trade negotiations is normal.
"A lot of people are shadow boxing and discussing what could be in the agreement rather than what's actually in the final agreement. We won't know about that until negotiations are concluded so I think people should be very weary before getting too excited, because what they're reading are ambit claims from countries about what they would like in their national interest rather than what actually will be agreed between countries."
Mr Wilson says Australians will have the chance to assess the proposed deal when it comes before Parliament for ratification.
"It doesn't matter what governments sign on to it's what parliament ratifies in the end and then goes on to ingratiate into law and that's where the real test of disclosure has to occur and will occur. Everything else is just ultimately about those who have an interest in seeing what's happening in negotiations earlier so they can derail the process."
But Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson says Parliament would only get 20 days to review the details of the huge deal.
And he says the scale and complexity of the potential deal means it should be properly scrutinised with the Australian public having a say in what is under negotiation.
"What is really unusual about the TPP deal is it goes way beyond what we would call the traditional trade in goods and services and breaking open market access. It straddles enormous areas of public interest and public importance, like for example internet usage, intellectual property, food labelling, quarantine standards. You really have to wonder what Australia has left to trade away in these deals, because the nature of these negotiations is you don't get something unless you give up something."