Do you hear the people sing. Singing the songs of angry (wo)men. It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again. When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes. (Les Miserables)
But are they listening?
A cataclysmic event like the Brexit vote focuses the mind on the future and leaves political parties who are supposed to represent the people with nowhere to hide.
The era of neoliberal globalisation is ending. People – who are also voters – have had enough of governments that work for the rich. Precarious jobs, stagnant incomes, unaffordable housing, massive household debt, stripped out safety nets, elected governments that are arrogant and unaccountable, opposition parties who are captives of their past or too cowed by fears of a collapse in business confidence to embrace demands for real change.
The drumbeat is getting louder. Policy choices that once seemed impossible and unthinkable have become very real. Political parties that claim to be progressive need to respond. Not just overseas. In Aotearoa too. And not after we ‘wait and see’. They need to take a position now.
The New Zealand Labour Party can no longer avoid the elephant in the room: if elected, what is Labour going to do about the toxic mega-deals that have become a political liability in other democracies and are so deeply unpopular here? Continuing to dance on pinheads is not an option. Everything the parliamentary party has said to date is designed to differentiate between what’s on the table now and what Labour did in the past, drawing the most tenuous of distinctions. They won’t even condemn the investor-state dispute mechanism that gives foreign corporations special right to sue sovereign governments in dubious offshore tribunals. Even the cautious Australian Labor Party campaigned on a platform of no ISDS in future agreements.
It’s time to bite the bullet and admit that both the globalisation process and these deals are out of control.
By the time of next year’s election neither the TPPA, TiSA and RCEP nor any EU FTA negotiations will be a done deal. Assuming Labour forms the next government, it will have the power and responsibility to decide whether to remain in them or take us out. So will the Greens and NZ First (especially tricky if the rumour that pro-TPPA Shane Jones may join their ranks is true).
Exit will not see the sky fall on New Zealand.
The existing negotiations for TiSA, RCEP and the EU can be abandoned or left to drift without any political or net economic cost. As Labour itself said with the TPPA, the economics don’t stack up. The point was made persuasively by eminent economist Jomo Sundaram, a co-author of the Tufts University study that debunks the projected gains from the TPPA, when he was here last month: these agreements generate net job losses and deepen inequality. Hardly a winning formula for a Labour Party whose current message is ‘jobs’, jobs’, ‘jobs’.
Even without Phil Goff, Labour will doubtless hesitate to abandon the upgrade of the China FTA, which they consider an unmitigated success, or the China-led RCEP as the back door to the same. While digging us more deeply into the milk powder economy, the Chinese will be demanding more investment and procurement opportunities and protections, backed by investor-state dispute mechanisms.
Labour’s union allies should remind them how KiwiRail carriages were made in China while the Hillside workshops closed, and the problems finding out if the workers sent by the Chinese contractor to strip out the asbestos were governed by our labour conditions. Similar questions will arise as more Chinese companies are encouraged to fund and build new infrastructure, at the same time as Labour wants to crack down on sub-minimum wages and other employment breaches involving overseas workers. Hopefully, the contractors won’t be using the same substandard Chinese steel imported through procurement contracts for the Waikato Expressway.
When it comes to the TPPA, there is also nothing to stop Labour from walking away. The ratification process needs to be viewed from separately from the US and the NZ end.
Legally, the agreement can’t come into force unless the US is a party. There are three US scenarios, all of which mean the TPPA will not come into force before the next NZ election and possibly not before the one after that.
First, and least likely, Obama gets the TPPA implementing legislation through Congress in the lame duck period at the end of 2016, having secured whatever further concessions are required from NZ and the other countries to secure a congressional majority. Even if he achieves that the agreement can only come into force before April 2018 if all the other countries have notified completion of their domestic processes and the US has certified that each of them has satisfied the US interpretation of their obligations. (for details of the process see tpplegal.wordpress.com). Second scenario: Clinton as president pushes the TPPA through, with or without changes. The consensus is that she would not dare to do that early in her presidency. Third, the TPPA dies.
At the NZ end, National will push the implementing legislation through this year. It short-ended the select committee review of the actual agreement so it could claim it had allowed plenty of time for parliamentary consideration of the (limited) legislative changes that are required. The report back date for the Bill is mid-November, which means it can pass before 2017 and not be hanging over an election year.
Presumably, the government will then notify the other parties that NZ has completed its domestic processes. However, that does not make the TPPA binding on NZ. It only becomes binding once the agreement is in force. A Labour-led government could withdraw that notification, and justifiably argue that the notification was made by the outgoing government in the knowledge that Labour opposed the deal. In the current climate, that is a perfectly tenable option. Labour can minimise any fallout by making its intention to revoke the ratification crystal clear now.
From what I am hearing of Labour’s internal discussions, this option seems to have become mixed up with withdrawal from the agreement once it is in force. Indeed, I understand that I have been quoted as saying that withdrawal is practically impossible. It is true that I have said that, when stressing that the best option for NZ is not to enter binding agreements in the first place. However, my comments about withdrawal need to be put in two contexts. First, they were in response to self-serving assurances from Matthew Hooten and others that any future government could withdraw from the TPPA at 6 months’ notice. At the same time, I noted that governments have been withdrawing from stand-alone investment treaties and that my current Marsden Fund project is on options and strategies to exit these agreements.
Second, the US presidential primaries, followed by the Brexit vote, have turned the tide further and faster, making exit politically feasible. I don’t want to be romantic about this. A Trump presidency in the US would be catastrophic, and a Clinton alternative far from cause for celebration. Brexit is likely to be painful, prolonged and contested. A court challenge is pending if notice is given to the EU without the consent of the British Parliament. Blair is calling for a second referendum. Parts of the state that atrophied have to be reconstructed. But New Zealand’s exit would be nothing like so difficult.
It should also be very clear that withdrawal is a more practical and feasible option than renegotiating the TPPA or another mega-deal to address matters of concern to an incoming government. That would require consensus among all the other parties, who would be entitle to demand a significant price from NZ if they were prepared to countenance any changes.
By far the better option is still is not to negotiate these agreements, where they have been negotiated not to make them binding, and to begin rethinking how we engage differently at an international level.
George Monbiot summed up the depressing diagnosis of Brexit, and the positive opportunity it presents, in a recent blog entitled ‘Brexit is a disaster but we can build on the ruins’.
It’s not as if the system that’s now crashing around us was functioning. The vote could be seen as a self-inflicted wound, or it could be seen as the eruption of an internal wound inflicted over many years by an economic oligarchy on the poor and the forgotten. The bogus theories on which our politics and economics are founded were going to collide with reality one day. The only questions were how and when.
If it is true that Britain will have to renegotiate its trade treaties, is this not the best chance we’ve had in decades to contain corporate power – of insisting that companies that operate here must offer proper contracts, share their profits, cut their emissions and pay their taxes? Is it not a chance to regain control of the public services slipping from our grasp? … In this chaos we can, if we are quick and clever, find a chance to strike a new contract: proportional representation, real devolution and a radical reform of campaign finance to ensure that millionaires can never again own our politics.
New Zealand’s three main ‘opposition parties’ owe it to the majority of Kiwis who oppose the TPPA to have the political guts to state unequivocally that they intend to withdraw New Zealand from the agreement, and others of similar ilk, so that voters can align their preferences to the parties with the vision to create a new, progressive future for the nation.