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December 2010

[This is based on research for the project, 'Fostering a Common Culture in Cross-Border Dispute Resolution: Australia, Japan and the Asia-Pacific', supported by the Commonwealth through the Australia-Japan Foundation which is part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.]

The Australian Government’s Productivity Commission (PC) released on 13 December its Research Report on Bilateral and Regional Trade Agreements (BRTAs). Recommendation 5 of the Draft Report in July had suggested that BRTAs (including International Investment Agreements or IAAs) should include Investor-State Dispute Resolution (ISDS) only if Australia’s counterpart country has a relatively underdeveloped legal system, and more generally only if foreign investors did not obtain more expansive protections than domestic investors. Following criticism of some factual errors and various arguments included in the Draft Report, the PC convened a policy workshop for officials, academics (including myself) and other stakeholders. Some views expressed there are partly reflected in the longer and somewhat better-argued section on ISDS now found in the final Report (at Part 14.2, pp265-77). Unfortunately, however, there remain serious problems with the analysis, which includes the following Findings by the PC:

'1. There does not appear to be an underlying economic problem that necessitates the inclusion of ISDS provisions within agreements. Available evidence does not suggest that ISDS provisions have a significant impact on investment flows.

2. Experience in other countries demonstrates that there are considerable policy and financial risks arising from ISDS provisions.'

Below I focus on the implications of this approach. They are particularly acute for Australia’s present negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Japan, for accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP, which Japan is also interested in joining), and for developments more generally within APEC and at the multilateral level

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