There has been a deafening silence from the Labour opposition about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) – until now.
At his first press conference as Party leader, David Cunliffe said the agreement will be a difficult and complex issue for New Zealand and called on the government to release the details of the negotiations: ‘My challenge to John Key and his government is to put that information in the public domain so the debate can begin’.
Key said they won’t do that, repeating the bogus claim that the TPPA would be worth billions of dollars and thousands of jobs to the country. Of course, he says, he would never sign a deal that isn’t good for the country – just like the convention centre for pokies, sale of Meridian Energy, or the Tiwai Point subsidy …
Cunliffe is bound to face attack from the TPPA’s cheerleaders, urged on by National. Some within Labour’s caucus will also be unhappy. But Cunliffe is actually fulfilling one of his most important campaign promises – to listen to the party. Last year’s Labour Party conference passed a resolution:
“THAT in light of the Labour Party’s strong commitment to both the benefits of international trade and New Zealand’s national sovereignty, and recognising the far-reaching implications for domestic policy of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, in which trade is only a small part, Labour will support signing such an agreement which: …
(g) Had been negotiated with full public consultation including regular public releases of drafts of the text of the agreement, and ratification being conditional on a full social, environmental and economic impact assessment including public submissions.”
Cunliffe’s challenge to National is the perfect lead-in to a new campaign and petition to ‘release the text before it is signed’, to be launched on 1 October along with a celebrity video. The timing is pure coincidence. But both moves reflect the urgency as the politicians from the twelve participating countries turn up the heat as they seek to close the deal by the end of 2013.
The negotiations have now gone underground. Texts in the vast bulk of the 29 chapters are now closed, awaiting political decisions on the sensitive political trade-offs. When I was in Brunei late last month for the final days of the 19th, and supposedly the last, round of negotiations the officials were under enormous pressure. Since then, working groups on chapters with major outstanding issues have held private and intense meetings to close off more of the text. All these meetings are in North America; most are in the US and chaired by US officials.
The chief negotiators will be meeting next week, on 18 to 21 September, in Washington DC, chaired by the US Trade Representative. They will decide what to put to the trade ministers from all twelve countries, including Tim Groser, when they meet on the margins of APEC in Bali in early October. They, in turn, will report to the political leaders, including Obama and Key, who meet first in Bali and immediately afterwards during the ASEAN meeting in Brunei.
The deal making will have begun. Only four chapters will be actively negotiated after Bali: intellectual property (IT and medicines), the transparency provisions on healthcare (that aim to undermine Pharmac), state-owned enterprises and environment.
They aim to close the deal in December, probably when the Trade Ministers meet at the World Trade Organisation conference in Bali. That is hugely ambitious, but they are pulling out all the stops to achieve it.
If this really is the end game – and it could well be – there is no more time for Labour to prevaricate. It has to move now. The easiest option is the process one – but it has to be meaningful. Releasing the text before it is signed is the only position that is achievable and makes any sense.
Cunliffe acknowledged during the Wellington candidates meeting that the TPPA would be one of the hardest issues for the caucus to deal with. This is not something that Labour can put on the long burner.
For example, I tried to think through the practicalities of Grant Robertson’s responses to a question on the virtual hustings about the candidates’ views on the TPPA and how they would make the process transparent. Robertson said: ‘We must be at the table for these sorts of negotiations, but it is vital that it is a Labour Government at the table.’ On transparency, he proposed a broad-based trade advisory group to increase public participation and understanding of Labour’s position.
Accepting, for argument sake, that this was a tenable position when the negotiations began three years ago, it could not work now. If a Labour government, elected in late 2014, did sit at the TPPA table it would be signing an agreement National had negotiated. The US is not going to let Labour re-open the text of a deal that was concluded ten months earlier. Even if the text was unfinished, an incoming Labour government is not going to be able to reopen concluded texts when Japan, Canada and Mexico were unable to do so when they joined part way through the negotiations. Likewise, the proposed advisory group would be irrelevant to the negotiations on the TPPA.
The Labour caucus needs to think objectively about both the politics and the substance of the TPPA.
Assuming an agreement is concluded, it will be released bang in the middle of an election year. Labour cannot be seen as complicit with another of Key’s secret deals, especially if the Greens and New Zealand First campaign against it on the basis that it locks the country further into the 20th century neoliberal quagmire.
Further, the TPPA could make it impossible for Labour to deliver on many of its key election promises for 2014. Cunliffe will be aware that this poses a practical and political problem if they were to defend a deal that contradicts their manifesto.
Practically, all the caucus will know that once a treaty is signed it is too late to change. The select committee review of free trade agreements has always been a sham. National has said it will put the TPPA to the vote in Parliament, but that won’t have any legal effect on its ratification of the treaty, which remains an executive act.
National will try to minimise any amendments to the existing law, relying where possible on regulations, policies and administrative decisions. But some legislation, including the deferred copyright review, will be controlled by Parliament.
In the past, amendments that are necessary to comply with a free trade agreement have been rolled into an omnibus bill. That is dealt with by the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade select committee, rather than the relevant subject committees, such as health or commerce.
Even if Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First opposed the TPPA, the government with support from Peter Dunne could muster a majority to see the legislation pass.
Politically, Labour could oppose the agreement at the select committee and move amendments. That provides an opportunity for political posturing. But it would not change the treaty. Labour will have to decide if it votes against the TPPA in defence of its policies, or supports an agreement that impedes its ability to implement its manifesto – something other parties are bound to point out. It cannot hide from that decision.
All this means that Labour has to demand the release the virtually completed text, including an indication of the potential political trade-offs, so it can analyse and debate its implications. This is an issue of sovereignty and democracy and a potential vote winner.
Immediately, Cunliffe has to make one more crucial decision. If Labour is to open up the debate on the TPPA before it is too late, it needs someone who will steadfastly demand the release of the text and an independent, broad-ranging and rigorous debate on its costs and benefits well before it is signed.