TPP report shockingly predictable, good for Pharmac

A peek inside the TPP negotiations show that New Zealand is holding its line on some major issues, as you'd expect. But let's not pretend that these aren't incredibly complex negotiations in which something will have to give

Nicky Hager has a story in today's Herald revealing, thanks to Wikileaks, some of the divisions with the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. It's a welcome glimpse of what we can be sure are torturous debates inside the TPP meetings, but at first glance the revelations appear to be entirely what you'd expect.

The report says Wikileaks has got hold of the agreement's chapter on intellectual property, which was always expected to be the most difficult topic on which to find agreement. It shows that New Zealand and the US are at odds on a number of the most contentious issues - of 250 clauses, New Zealand and the US agree on about 60, but disagree on around 190.

My first observation is that each country comes to these talks with their national self interest front of mind, so it's hardly surprising that a small, open but somewhat centralised country is at odds with the world's largest, but heavily subsidised. economy.

Many people I've spoken to about TPP fret about Pharmac and fear the TPP puts that largely successful model and its provision of cheap drugs to New Zealanders, at risk. But everyone I've ever spoken to with genuine knowledge of the talks has assured me that's not the case. There are two obvious reasons - no New Zealand government of any stripe wants to pay more for medicines and second, it would be political suicide to trade away an organisation that is so vital to life and death issues in this country. I'd be amazed if they weren't right.

The other thing I'd note is there is division within each country and huge complexity around the wrongs and rights of each issue.

One of the reasons we're at odds with the US - in incredibly simple terms - is that it wants greater patent protection for its big pharma companies, while we want patents to run out asap so we can afford the cheaper generics. But of course there are drug companies in New Zealand which would back the US position over ours, and for good reason.

On one hand we all want cheaper drugs, we want the poorest of the poor to be able to afford drugs that could save thousands of lives and we want access to those for our own sick friends and relatives asap. Instead, the big corporates make immense profits by selling patented products for the highest price profitable.

But before we boo the corporates, we have to accept that most of the big medical advances now come from those big corporate labs; without big profits there won't be big investments in R&D and the best researchers and there won't be new drugs invented in the first place.

Note this article from last month reporting that:

Anyone who follows the pharma business knows that industry giants have made giant cuts to their workforces over the past several years. Just how many jobs have been cut? About 143,500 among the world's top 11 drugmakers, FirstWord Pharma reports, citing Bloomberg data.

The loss of its patent on the cholesterol drug Liptor saw Pfizer last year lay off 600 sales staff alone, according to this Reuters report.

Consider copyright as well. You can look at the big Hollywood companies and argue that if you or I download the odd movie without paying it's no skin off their multi-billion dollar nose, right? In New Zealand the Fair Deal Coalition say parallel imports could be at risk, stricter copyright laws could mean libraries are unable to copy parts of books for you. On ther other hand, Paula Browning of Copyright Licensing New Zealand made an impassioned speech to authors in September about how copyright must be protected if we value our Luminaries, Hairy Maclarys and the like:

Copyright – your right to earn a living from your writing – is under attack... At an Asia Pacific copyright meeting in Bangkok a couple of weeks ago I joked that soon New Zealand children would be reading about Kangaroos instead of Kiwis. But it’s really not funny. As New Zealanders we’re used to a rich creative culture. We’re used to having access to our own stories in our own books and our own TV programmes; through our own music and our own movies. It’s something we’re inherently proud of as we were able to unequivocally demonstrate at the Frankfurt Book Fair last year.

All of this is at risk if we do not have effective copyright law. Without it, the business model that is the foundation of the creative economy will be worthless.

I lay those examples out simply to make the point that these are intensely complicated negotiations with good arguments on most sides. (And because I don't know what I think about a number of these incredibly tricky issues). But you can bet that each country's negotiators won't be focussed on the greater good for humanity behind these closed doors, but rather will be asking simply 'what is in our country's economic best interest?'.

In short, the answer for New Zealand is that a lowering of agricultural tarrifs around the region will be worth a truckload, so it's natural that we will be expected to compromise in other areas if we are to get what we want there. And each other country will need to do the same - it will be a painful process.

You can be sure that whatever deal is struck, there will be disappointed, even furious, groups and whole industries in each partnership country.

The complexity of squaring away the concerns of small countries and large, developing countries and developed, plus two of the world's biggest economies in American and Japan... well, as I said, painful.

So today's report isn't surprising, but at least it's refreshing to get some idea of where the countries are coming from and to see that, despite what some have feared, New Zealand is not rolling over. Not yet anyway.