The Australian

By Adam Creighton

Former World Bank president Robert Zoellick has dismissed claims the public is being kept in the dark during negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as former prime minister John Howard warned that the historic 12-nation trade deal must not be delayed for the sake of China.

Mr Zoellick, a former US chief trade negotiator, said some confid­entiality was essential to trade negotiations to maintain political calm at home and secure outcomes in the national interest.

“Do you always want to tell people your bottom line?” he asked, suggesting that relaying the minut­iae of talks to a domestic audience would cripple discussion. “Having worked on this for 25 years, I’m always impressed with the creativity of the oppon­ents of free trade to come up with another BS reason to be against it.” John Howard, recounting the delicate negotiations in the lead- up to the Australia-US free-trade agreement in 2005, agreed some confidentiality was important to make negotiations among sovereign countries politically feasible.

The TPP, which would span countries representing 40 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product, has come under attack for its secrecy and for potentially giving multinationals power to sue governments for changing policy.

Reserve Bank board member Heather Ridout reportedly has warned that Australia would regret­ signing the trade deal.

Mr Howard said China’s joining was “clearly desirable” but the TPP should not be stalled.

“We don’t want to get mesmerised by China …. she does choose on occasion to play by her own rules,” he said. “One of the most ridiculous propositions is that in some way Australia has to make a choice between the US and China.

“The constant aim of Australian foreign policy should be to ensure­ that relations between the US and China never reach such a point where Australia feels under any pressure to make any kind of choice.” Benefits from Australia’s 2005 trade deal with the US had grown exponentially, he said in his speech, dwelling on the visa program that gives Australian workers special access to the US.

He noted that 15 per cent of visas granted by the US for special occupations were going to Australians.

Mr Zoellick said the US-Australia free-trade deal had been crucial to progressing the TPP.“Your Labor Party and your labour unions have tended to think free trade is a good thing,” he said.

This article was originally published at The Australian