Australia 'fails' anti-tobacco bid

Australia has been accused of failing to defend its historic plain packaging tobacco legislation, with one report from regional talks in Singapore describing Australia as a "constant stumbling block" to other nations' attempts to secure the right to follow suit.

A report from an observer at the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks speaks of efforts to "have language adopted to ensure that any nation that adopts strong tobacco control legislation is not sued or at risk".

"Australia is and has been a constant stumbling block," the memo says. "I totally understand the desire to avoid language that implies that Australia's position under current law is weak or language that implies additional protection is needed," the document says.

"But what I am really trying to understand is . . . Australia's resistance to any language on tobacco, and its seeming lack of interest in working on language that would protect Australia and others from future tobacco trade-based litigation."

Australia has required tobacco products to be sold in plain packages since December 2012. Attempts by companies including Philip Morris to overturn the law were defeated in the High Court. But it is now trying to sue Australia in the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law using an investor-state dispute settlement clause in an obscure Australia-Hong Kong agreement.

Most of the 12 nations taking part in the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks want to protect their rights to enact similar legislation in the face of a US insistence that the agreement include clauses allowing private corporations to sue governments.

"I never thought Australia would be a major problem in this effort, but we repeatedly hear that it is," the email says.

Australia's Trade Minister, Andrew Robb, has indicated he is prepared to trade Australia's previous opposition to investor state dispute settlement clauses in exchange for greater access to markets for commodities such as sugar.

Mr Robb told Parliament that ''substantial progress'' had been made in the talks and said that his aim was to ''advance our national interest, not to compromise it''.

An Australia Institute survey released on Friday finds only 11 per cent of Australians "definitely know" about the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. Almost 90 per cent think the details of such deals should be made public before they are signed.

Told that the US wants the right for its corporations to sue governments, 75 per cent are opposed. Asked if they trust the Australian government when it says it will not sign an agreement that will push up the price of prescription drugs, 67 per cent say no.

On Thursday Labor and the Greens united in the Senate to pass a motion expressing alarm at the potential impact of the deal on pharmaceutical prices.

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