Test Mission: The way in which Prime Minister Ardern and Trade Minister Parker conduct themselves at the TPP-11 discussions in Danang, Vietnam, will have a major bearing on how the new Labour-NZ First-Green Government is perceived by its supporters. To sign the TPP, without first fixing it, would be to "Fail" the first major test of the Coalition's political resolve.
IN JUST NINE DAYS, Prime Minister Ardern, and her Trade Minister, David Parker, will be in Vietnam. At a side-bar gathering to the Apec Conference that summons them, they will meet with the remaining 11 signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). At that gathering, the New Zealand government will attempt to negotiate a number of minor modifications to the agreement.
Essentially, the Prime Minister and Trade Minister will be asserting their country’s right to prevent foreign speculators from purchasing urban property and farmland within its borders. A right the previous National government, for reasons it never adequately explained, failed to assert. A right reserved by just about every other signatory to the TPP agreement.
The Prime Minister and Trade Minister will also assert New Zealand’s right to renegotiate its predecessors’ acceptance of the Investor/State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) procedures of the TPP. These are the procedures which grant foreign corporations the power to sue the New Zealand Government for legislating in what it believes to be the best interests of its own people. Such litigation will take place in corporate-controlled tribunals, without reference to the New Zealand judiciary. Once again, the previous National government’s failure to defend this, the most fundamental duty of any sovereign state, awaits a convincing explanation.
Presented in this fashion, the mission of the Prime Minister and Trade Minister is not only an important, but also a necessary, act of remediation. In its present form, the TPP should never have been signed by the former National Government. Accordingly, any failure on the part of the remaining 11 signatories to accede to the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s entirely reasonable requests for minor, country-specific, modifications (President Donald Trump has already pulled the United States out of what he dismissed as “a very bad deal”) should trigger New Zealand’s immediate withdrawal from the agreement.
What a pity, then, that the Prime Minister’s and Trade Minister’s mission is not being presented in this fashion. Ms Ardern and Mr Parker will depart for Danang shrouded in the same obfuscating clouds of free-trade rhetoric that have prevented the New Zealand public from ever being vouchsafed a clear understanding of the TPP agreement.
Rather than allowing an open and informed debate on the pros and cons of the TPP, the free-trade lobby is presenting Ms Ardern’s trip to Apec as a crucial test of her political and economic maturity. Any outcome other than New Zealand’s unequivocal ratification of TPP-11 will be publicly represented as a significant failure.
Even if the Prime Minister and Trade Minister manage to secure their desired modifications to the TPP text, the free-trade fanatics will still insist that the Labour-NZ First-Green Government has fallen at its first hurdle. By displaying hostility to globalism in general, and foreign investment in particular, the new government will be accused of endangering New Zealand’s economic security.
As if that wasn’t reason enough for Ms Ardern and Mr Parker to feel nervous, the opponents of an unmodified TPP are as likely to turn her trip to Vietnam into a critical test of her government’s intentions as its supporters.
The fight to turn Labour away from what its “free-trade-right-or-wrong” position under Helen Clark has been as gruelling as it was long. For those engaged in this fight, persuading the Labour caucus to take a firm position on the critical question of national sovereignty constituted a pivotal victory. Without it, Labour’s relationships with NZ First and the Green Party would have come under enormous strain. Indeed, had Labour not refused to sign-on to the TPP, as negotiated by the National Government, it is difficult to see the formation of a Labour-NZ First-Green government ever becoming a realistic possibility.
Labour’s opposition to TPP was also an important factor in deescalating the vociferous protest movement which reached its crescendo in February 2016. Had all the parties committed to changing the government not been more-or-less on the same page in relation to the inadequacy of the National Party’s TPP, it is debateable whether or not the massive protest demonstrations it was beginning to inspire would have proved so easy to wind down.
To the New Zealanders who feared that TPP would bring with it a permanent loss of their nation’s sovereignty, the following words from Labour were a source of considerable reassurance:
“The TPPA will have ramifications for generations of New Zealanders. For their sake, we should not so lightly enter into an agreement which may exacerbate long-term challenges for our economy, workforce, and society.”
The votes that made the Labour-NZ First-Green government possible were inspired by many factors. That the three parties’ common opposition to the TPP was one of then cannot be disputed.
As Ms Ardern and Mr Parker wing their way to Vietnam, they should consider very carefully whose test of free-trade principles they most wish to pass.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 31 October 2017.