TRADE Minister Andrew Robb says Australia will oppose any move in the world's biggest multilateral trade pact that forces consumers to pay more for subsidised drugs or imposes tougher penalties on internet providers.
Mr Robb, who is in Korea for talks on a bilateral free trade agreement, was responding to WikiLeaks obtaining and releasing a draft chapter covering intellectual property negotiations of the US-led, 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) talks which suggests extending patent and copyright protections could lead to increased costs for drugs, movies, software and computer games for consumers and tougher criminal penalties for Internet service providers.
Health groups in Australia have warned the patent changes could force up the price of subsidised drugs on Australia's national subsidised drugs scheme, which has long been a target of the US drug manufacturers.
IT analysts have also warned that under the draft rules Internet providers could be held liable for anyone downloading illegal content.
While not commenting on the accuracy of the material and stressing the content of texts was constantly revised, Mr Robb said the government "understands concerns around pharmaceutical issues in the TPP".
"The pharmaceutical benefits scheme is an integral part of Australia's health system and the government will not permit any outcome which undermines the PBS or Australia's health system," Mr Robb said.
Referring to the threat to internet service providers, he said the government is not supporting any provisions on copyright in the TPP "that would criminalise conduct that is currently legal in Australia".
But at the same time Mr Robb said the US-led TPP offered the opportunity to improve trade in areas such as e-commerce and with state-owned enterprises to promote fairer competition. He urged South Korea (where he has just completed talks on a free trade deal with his Korean counterpart Yoon Sang-jick) to join the TPP negotiations.
US President Barack Obama wants the TPP finalised by the end of the year – a timeline endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
But Mr Robb has warned previously Australia would not sign up to the TPP unless there is a more ambitious outcome for Australian agricultural exports including grains, beef and sugar, which were excluded from a bilateral free trade deal with the US.
The $28 trillion deal, which would represent 40 per cent of the world's GDP, includes the US, Canada, Australia, Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Chile, Mexico, Peru, New Zealand and Japan.
Korea has flagged joining the talks but has so far followed a policy of aggressively pursuing bilateral free trade agreements and it may also be reluctant, given China is pushing a rival free trade grouping and a deal involving Japan and Korea. "I think it makes eminent sense for Korea to be looking to join the TPP," Mr Robb said.
The TPP could become a foundation for an even bigger region-wide agreement, he said.
Following the talks with Mr Yoon, Mr Robb said substantial progress was being made on the sticking points in a bilateral free trade deal, including on an investor state dispute resolution clause and better access for Australian agricultural exports.
"I think we are making very good progress and I have a series of propositions which hopefully will see us overcome the no-go areas," Mr Robb added.
A Korean Foreign Ministry statement said the "two sides have made significant progress".
Key points Health groups warn of increased medicine costs. Leaked TPP document suggests internet providers could face criminal charges.