So they did it. They finalised the TPPA.

But it will be hard for us to get our heads around the official TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement) fact sheets just released by the government, let alone being able to digest the colossal document itself.

The truth is most of us rely on the likes of Professor Jane Kelsey (from Auckland University) to sift through every chapter and clause she can get her hands on. It’s not like our government has been helpful over the last five years. They’ve been all secret squirrel on it, then accusing opponents of being “misinformed.”

Trust us, they said. It will all be worth it in the end.

Really? Because, they said, the whole point of New Zealand joining the TPPA was to increase access of our dairy produce into other markets by removing tariffs on our exports. Tim Groser, who’s been doing the negotiations on New Zealand’s behalf, assured us it was a “high quality, commercially meaningful deal” for dairy — or nothing. He insisted that he’d walk if the TPPA failed to deliver those benefits.

Well, it doesn’t. And he didn’t.

“You take what you can get,” he said. “It’s a simple reality of world politics.”

The Fonterra chairman, who has some reason to be interested in the dairy scene, wasn’t exactly cheering. “It’s not the elimination of tariffs that had been the undertaking or the expectation some years ago as TPP got under way… ”

And New Zealand’s special agricultural trade envoy admitted that “the deal falls short on dairy, but the alternative was for New Zealand to not sign… ”

You don’t have to know much about trade to figure out that New Zealand was in the sandpit with some very big boys — and that no matter what family jewels our negotiators were prepared to hock off, the US, Japan and Canada were never going to let our dairy exports hurt their heavily-protected dairy industries.

Jane Kelsey is analysing what information she can get at to assess our government’s spin on the final agreement. Yes, she reports, there are some gains for some other agricultural exports but they won’t come on-stream for a long time. And it’s hard to get a handle on how real those gains actually are, without the detail.

So much, then, for free trade. Anyway, according to the assurances we’re getting from Tim Groser, it’s really about the “bigger picture.” Here he is: “Look, long after the details of this negotiation on things like tonnes of butter have been regarded as a footnote in history, the bigger picture of what we’ve achieved today will be what remains. It is inconceivable that the TPP bus will stop at Atlanta. The TPP bus will move on… ”

Yes… the bigger picture. That’s always been the scary bit.

It’s easy to get the feeling that New Zealand isn’t on the bus, as Tim implies. More like under it. Because there are several questions we need to ask ourselves. Like: Who is driving the bus? Where is it taking us? Where does the road map indicate we’re going? And what does that bigger picture look like?

When we have all the info about whether we can flog off more New Zealand wine or bigger chunks of cheddar, we may see that those details aren’t as big a problem as the big picture stuff itself.

We know that the TPPA is not about free trade. Joseph Stiglitz says it’s more about managing trade and investor relations on behalf of the biggest lobby and business interests of (mainly) other countries.

He is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and he says the new agreements are about getting rid of regulations. “We’re talking,” he says, “about regulation over the environment, safety, economy and health. The consumers, who are not at the table, get screwed.”

Here in New Zealand, Bryan Gould, a former high-ranking UK politician, and former vice-chancellor of Waikato University, agrees. He says: “The TPPA represents … a further, large, and largely irreversible step towards the absorption of a small economy like New Zealand into a much larger economy — an economy that is increasingly directed from overseas, not by politicians or even officials, but by self-interested and unaccountable business leaders.”

And that’s why the concept of Investor State Dispute Settlements (ISDS) gives opponents the heebie-jeebies, particularly because US companies are quite partial to litigation.

Jane Kelsey says our government is playing down the risks from ISDS when it says New Zealand has never been sued.

“Australia, Germany, and many other OECD countries, had the same false sense of complacency until they faced massive damages claims for adopting health, environmental and anti-nuclear policies,” she says. “There are numerous provisions and a whole chapter dedicated to ensuring that commercial interests have rights to influence government decisions on policy and regulation.”

The truth is that the road rules have changed. The TPPA is a deal made in secret and will be ratified by the ones who made the secret deal.

There’s any amount of evidence now that our government is committing to a new process of democracy which is anything but “by the people, for the people.”

For instance, there’s the conduct of the negotiators and our government in actively preventing not only a public debate but also an independent analysis of the text itself. There’s the withholding of real information from anyone but industry stakeholders. And there’s the refusal to release documents under the Official Information Act by a narrow reinterpretation of the Act.

When it comes to Māori, the government has demonstrated a contemptuous interpretation of the Treaty relationship. It hasn’t treated us seriously as a “stakeholder”, let alone a Treaty partner. There has been no interest in enabling Māori to assess the impact of the TPPA regime on tino rangatiratanga.

(Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be an issue for the Federation of Māori Authorities. On the day the TPPA was finalised, FOMA finally spoke out — in support of the TPPA. The Maori Women’s Welfare League hasn’t taken its cue from FOMA though. After a fair bit of discussion at the national conference this month, the MWWL declared its opposition to the TPPA.)

As it is, there’s no knowing how things will now proceed. But the opposition within New Zealand to the TPPA hasn’t died away. There’s the case before the High Court, and there are claims to the Waitangi Tribunal — and both those moves are still hugely significant because they challenge the right of the Prime Minister and Trade Minister to basically go rogue.

The first case questions the interpretation of the Official Information Act. The second points to the failure of the government to uphold the Treaty of Waitangi obligations which require active and meaningful engagement with tangata whenua. That’s particularly relevant to negotiating agreements that may compromise the sovereignty of New Zealand and te tino rangatiratanga o te iwi Māori.

The reality is that long after Tim Groser and John Key ditch their day jobs, New Zealanders will be exposed to more and more similar kinds of trade and investment negotiations. We need transparency and disclosure. And we need to keep up the fight. Because it’s not all over. There are still things we can do to stop the government from taking the next steps to sign up to this deal.

And we can take heart that we are not alone.

Our biggest allies may well be those who oppose the deal from within the USA. And there are our friends from over the ditch who believe they’ve been sold out for a few spoonfuls of sugar.


© e-tangata, 2015


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