It has taken almost a year for the not-so-new Labour-led government to act on its promise of an inclusive and progressive new trade strategy. Only, ‘act’ a far too generous description. It’s too little, too late. The terms of reference signed off by the Cabinet are not going to explore the real reasons why Kiwis, among many others around the world, have turned their backs on these agreements.
The Prime Minister’s first press conference after her return launched a three-tiered consultation on ‘Trade for All’, which is supposed to ‘modernise’ New Zealand’s trade policy. She acknowledged the “loss of confidence in the trade agenda” was epitomised in the backlash against the TPPA, the need to “rebuild confidence” and to see the benefits of these agreements more evenly spread.
A close friend said my press release written in response came across as too angry. I’m not surprised it did. I was bloody angry. You can read it here. Now I want to explain why.
It has taken almost a year for the not-so-new Labour-led government to act on its promise of an inclusive and progressive new trade strategy. Only, ‘act’ a far too generous description.
It’s too little, too late. The terms of reference signed off by the Cabinet are not going to explore the real reasons why Kiwis, among many others around the world, have turned their backs on these agreements.
Let’s start with the secrecy. There’s not a whiff of a suggestion that they might do something to bring more daylight to bear on negotiations before these deals become a fait accompli. Or even increase transparency afterwards. I currently have two appeals with the Chief Ombudsman over this government’s failure to provide adequate information under the Official Information Act. One of them simply asked what provisions of the TPPA NZ wanted suspended in the renegotiations after the US withdrew. A new OIA request has asked for our negotiating mandate in the NZ EU negotiation. The EU published its several months ago, but there’s nothing from the government’s end.
What else is not on the agenda for Trade for All? The monopolies to Big Pharma and the ongoing refusal to conduct health impact assessments during negotiations. The post-election admission that there can’t be an export tax on bottled water, collected for free, even as redress to Maori. Rules that say central and local government can’t spend taxpayer and ratepayer money on locally made goods and services to support local workers and small businesses. The grip that foreign firms and Big Tech have over our economy, jobs, lives and tax base. Fetters on the government’s regulatory space for financial services or public services, especially as the government intends to use more PPPs.
The list is potentially endless. Yet the ‘Trade for All agenda’ is somehow meant to re-engender confidence without addressing any of them.
Sure, the documents talk of promoting women, indigenous peoples, small and medium enterprises – but only to participate in the unlevel playing field of international trade without addressing any of the causes for that imbalance from which they can never catch up. The Canadian model the government favours offers nothing more than clip-on statements and chapters that replete with rhetoric, but no hard obligations.
Why do I say it is also too late? Because MFAT is up to its eyeballs negotiating large-scale trade and investment agreements that mostly began under National. The Pacific Alliance with mainly Latin American countries is modelled on the TPPA. Nothing has changed in the RCEP negotiations involving ASEAN, China, India, Korea, Japan and Australia. While New Zealand has asked for a country-specific exception from investor-state dispute settlement, the last I heard that was likely to more ineffectual side-letters of the kind on TPPA-11.
Perhaps the worst example of a legacy deal is PACER-plus, which is currently before the House. Australia and NZ foisted the agreement on Pacific Island Countries in a decade long process begun by a previous Labour government. The final outcome makes a mockery of claims to be pro-development. The two largest Pacific island countries, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, refused to sign.
As well as too little, too late the process itself has the same old biases. It has three tiers. First is the public arm. MFAT has set up a ‘have a say’ on-line webpage that runs until 14 October. They offer a ‘quick quiz’ of 5 questions – you really should visit that and have some fun! They also provide some new propaganda to help inform people’s input – 7 discussion papers written by MFAT that are so biased that they discredit the entire Trade for All exercise on their own. You can also to talk face to face with someone to express your views: register to attend one of their public meetings from 20 August to 28 September (see below).
The second limb is a special Maori consultation involving ‘hui held in a tikanga Maori framework’, not currently defined. This is the most breathtaking instance of the government’s deafness. The Cabinet paper released yesterday says this consultation will follow the repeatedly-condemned Strategy for Engagement with Maori developed in 2001. That approach to engagement was trenchantly criticised in the Waitangi Tribunal claim on traditional knowledge (Wai 262) and again by the Tribunal in its report on the TPPA claim (Wai 2522). The failure of the government and MFAT to address this is a key complaint in the second stage of the Tribunal claim on the TPPA, due to be heard before the end of the year.
The third and only concrete element of the review is the proposed establishment of a Trade for All board. It’s chaired by a former MFAT diplomat. The remaining broad-based membership is yet to be decided. The board has a matter of months to produce a report if the government is to announce the new ‘Trade for All’ policy in June next year, although it is not expected to impact on existing negotiations. The board is shaping up as an even less influential and more poorly resourced version of the Land and Water Forum, which some may be familiar with. Most importantly, perhaps, we don’t know whether its processes will be transparent or whether participants will be gagged by requirements for confidentiality.
By now – if you are still reading – you will be asking what’s the point of participating? It will simply legitimise a process that is fundamentally flawed and adds another layer of spin to the government’s claim that it is listening, while it continues with business as usual.
The answer is predictable: if no one says they want to be heard and expresses their views, the government and MFAT will say the lack of confidence has been solved. It will be incredibly difficult to keep these issues on the government’s agenda, let alone to force any change.
That leads to a second much more positive response. Mark your diaries for a 2-day hui on ‘What a genuinely progressive trade and investment strategy should look like’ at the Fale Pasifika at Auckland University on 19th and 20th of October. This will be a forward-looking agenda-setting hui with lots of panels addressing the issues left of the government’s agenda. Hopefully it will be streamed for people who can’t come and people can tweet in questions to the panel facilitators. Bryan Bruce’s new documentary will also be premiered on the evening of 19th October as part of the hui. More details will follow soon.
MFATs consultation meetings are: August 20th Wellington; 21st Timaru; 23rd Invercargill; 28th Rotorua; 30th Gisborne; 3rd September Dunedin; 5th Christchurch;10th Auckland; 12th Hamilton; 18th Nelson; 19th Napier; 21st Whangarei; 25th Tauranga; 26th New Plymouth; 28th Palmerston North.