[This short essay was written to emphasize the democratic deficit in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations which took place over many years prior to 2015. The negotiations were defined by their secrecy, lack of transparency, and strangely missing voices from the citizens that would be affected by the agreement.]
After much secrecy, the full text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – the trade pact involving 12 Pacific countries and covering nearly 40% of the world’s GDP – is now available (albeit only in English at this stage).
There is, however, a troubling silence about the TPP and its democratic deficit.
A dozen ministers of secrecy
The secrecy of the TPP, which took around ten years of negotiation to complete, wasn’t lost on commentators as the negotiating ministers began signalling that these talks were coming to an end. The negotiations’ lack of transparency was criticised as anti-democratic and unjust. Citizens across the Pacific were concerned about what was being agreed to in their name.
But the secrecy of the pact has also had its defenders. Had negotiations been done without “cabinet rules”, so to speak, and under the glare of full media coverage, it would have been near impossible for the trade ministers to reach agreement. The media distorts, citizens are skittish, and the polls fickle.
Political practicality and the desire to get things done – or expediency – help to explain why a decade of trade talk was not made open to the individuals the TPP is meant to serve.
Stand and deliver
At first, the TPP promises much. It claims to stand for the interests of workers, all businesses, consumers and the poor. It aims to further integrate 12 economies of the Pacific Rim through trade liberalisation, increasing sustainable growth, building opportunities for businesses and consumers, and establishing social benefits.
These are laudable goals. They are progressive, promising to deliver much to peoples – especially the small businesses that operate in the pact’s signatory countries. But, ironically, it is among the TPP’s praiseworthy goals that its democratic deficit becomes most apparent.
Large economic agreements between countries have almost always been out of reach for citizens. This means that trade ministers represent citizens and are meant to act in their interests when making these deals.
Now, despite the TPP’s populist language, it is obvious that the people and small businesses of the countries involved had, and will have, little part to play in a pact reached ostensibly in their name.
There is little evidence of the pact’s 12 trade ministers, or their predecessors, involving the people and small businesses that they represent. Economic decisions are the responsibility of experts who understand complex mathematics, models, theories and systems – or who think they understand such things and fall prey to hubris. We’re often reminded that this is complicated stuff, beyond the reach of most people, and should therefore be left to the experts.
The TPP stands for economic representation. It delivers an esoteric promise – a promise inherently disconnected from workers, small businesses and the poor. Its many pages, contortionist’s language and unapologetically complex logic begs the question: for whom does this TPP toll?
Will this pact put onto the pyre the arbitrary, hubris-riddled economics that giants – so distant from the peoples – practise? Or will it be yet another instance of burning the hope for democracy’s entrance into multinational macroeconomics?
Status quo or quo vadis?
Signatories to the TPP are now at a crossroad. Staying put is not an option. Signatories almost certainly see more benefit than cost in following this pact through.
So will it be the road well trodden or the road to democratic redemption?
The well-trodden road is the status quo technique used by governments. Release a policy, massage away the fears through tokenistic mechanisms (like submissions to the government), crack down on the bigger protests and marginalise their leaders. Repeat the mantras; tell them that everything will be alright.
The road to democratic redemption is one where governments bring the people in – one, perhaps, where an international parliament involving people from all 12 countries can debate the pact for at least a year. A place perchance for Charrette games to be played by small businesses so that they can figure out what the pact means for their bottom line. It could see people around the world watching multilingual debates on the TPP and deliberating online about it.
The pact, now in a sense finalised, is not at risk of being washed away by bad polling or a nervous cabinet. Nothing but expediency, and perhaps pressure from big businesses, is standing in the way of open negotiations which can reverse the TPP’s democratic deficit.
If the 12 governments responsible for the TPP are genuine about doing this for their people, then they should extend a democratic hand. They should allow enough time for meaningful and constructive feedback to be made through a variety of innovative methods. This might bring about a trade pact that could actually mean something for the people it apparently serves.