Cunliffe moves Labour off the fence on the TPPA


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: …

TDB Recommends

(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.


  1. “There has been a deafening silence from the Labour opposition about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) – until now.”

    Jane Kelsey

    And I might add….. every other issue of major national and international importance.

    Tremendous work Jane.

    All power to David Cunliffe in exposing this anti-democratic dirty deal to the disinfecting power of daylight.

  2. “My challenge to John Key and his government is to put that information in the public domain so the debate can begin”

    David Cunliffe

    “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.”

    Jane Kelsey

    Hi Jane,

    A petition is a good idea.

    But wouldn’t a referendum petition be even better?

    I know time is short, but a CIR petition has never been launched by a leader of the opposition before. If David Cunliffe gets no luck with his demand that Key release the text before it is signed, then maybe he would agree to help launch, just such a petition. With a principled stand, and David Cunliffe’s public profile and the full resources of a large parliamentary party behind it, a CIR petition could be a huge runaway success. And even if it was not filled in time, it would still be a powerful statement undermining the legitimacy of any agreement entered into in secrecy against the expressed democratic will of the New Zealand people.

    What do you think?

    • P.S. I might add that the launch of CIR petition in NZ on the TPPA would be world news. As many commenters have said the TPPA has the power to affect many millions of people around the world.

      If the CIR was spearheaded by David Cunliffe it would promote him and New Zealand as a world leader. Unfortunately it would have the opposite effect for John Key. (Who I can’t stop thinking bares a striking resemblance to Colonel Klink.)

  3. Reading between the lines, TPPA will be a draconian monstrosity which effectively signs over individuals’ rights of ownership of their DNA profiles, intellectual property, harvestable organs, privacy, animal husbandry, plant breeds, medication and nutritional regimes to some faceless multinational conglomerate.
    Does the TPPA reside within the confines of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights?
    If this is not so, then what is the reason for the secrecy?

    • Thanks for pointing this out Curwen.

      It is good to see that NZFirst has come on board on this issue.

      Most pundits both Left and Right are of the opinion that after 2014 NZFirst will be an ally of the Nats. Possibly helping them scrape through as the ruling party. This conclusion has been come to because of Winston Peters declared antipathy to working in coalition with the Greens.

      However, if Labour decides to make differences with National over the TPPA a major battleground this will almost certainly cement Labour and NZFirst if not as allies at least on the same side in opposition to the Nats. virtually guaranteeing a Labour led government.

      Further, if all the opposition parties pooled their resources, human and financial, they could quickly fulfil the terms for calling a CIR.

  4. Curwen – of course that is predictable because Cunliffe has only just become the leader. He said it on his very first day as leader. Did you predict that? – No.

  5. Commendable notion – though I lost confidence in labour the moment they pushed through s92; to me it was the moment that they uncloaked as corporate pushovers. Cunliffe can bleat all he wants.

  6. I hate to sound stupid, but what would the consequences be of New Zealand pulling out of the agreement after it was signed?

    If this incredibly dodgy deal is signed before the 2014 election, would the next government be able to simply pull out of the deal without serious consequences (besides not being able to take advantages of any conditions within the agreement)? Or would there be some kind of large financial/economic penalty (more so than if we had never agreed to the deal in the first place).

    I hope it’s closer to the former.

  7. As well as National, Banks and Dunne having the majority, you have to be at least slightly concerned that some Labour MPs may vote for the TPPA or at least abstain, if there ever were a vote in parliament. That could even be an issue if it wasn’t finalised until after 2014, when we might have a Labour/Greens government. The halfway solution by Grant Robertson is an example of some Labour MPs being in support of it for some reason. If you look on Labour’s website and search trans-pacific partnership, you’ll see Phil Goff is in love with it (granted most of it is a couple of years old).

    I think we can at least rely on the Greens to handle this properly, but of course it will more than likely be Cunliffe as PM in a left-wing government, so it’s good he’s making some noise about it. The absurd thing is though, most National voters shouldn’t be happy about this. If you run a small or medium enterprise, or work for one, or if you work for a corporation but not in senior management, then supporting the TPPA is surely a bad investment. You’re giving your much bigger competitors a whole lot more power or your bosses the opportunity to treat you like dirt.

    What’s more, there was an article this week that talked about more prescriptions not being picked up because the price has gone from $3 to $5. So the TPPA could lead to these prices blowing up and then what?

    And allowing for overseas investors to sue our government in overseas courts… Is that not the big corporates making their game changing blow on people’s rights?

    Look at me. I’m ranting. It’s just that there’s a lot to get angry about with this. The politicians (well, everyone) against it should make that known.

  8. If the labour caucus votes in support of the TPPA they will risk the wrath of their own Party members, the further disillusionment of the 800.000 lapsed voters and a very real potential to find themselves once more in opposition come 2014.

  9. It’s important to let people know that momentum is building against TPPA elsewhere, particularly in the States itself, with growing cross-party dissent in Congress.

  10. John Key needs to be reminded that he works for the people of this country and not for the elitist big corporations that only care about their own profits and genders. The people need to know and be involved in deciding if we want or not want to be involved in these so called trade agreements, If this TTP gets signed they will have us by the balls and there will be nothing we can do about it.This agreement will put big corporations and the people behind them above the laws of this country and also in a position to control the law makers.This is a big step in the end game for NEW WORLD ORDER. I hope our politicians do their job and force John Key to revel what is exactly in this TTP agreement to it’s full extent as it is our right to know as it is us that will be effected by it. Secret back door deals that are being done buy the governments of this world are not in the public’s interest’s, if they were they wouldn’t be doing them in secret now would they

    • What nonsense. Which part of the TPPA will do away with parliamentary sovereignty? All it would take is a subsequent Government to change the law on any part of the TPPA they didn’t like. Of course that would impact our trading relationship with other nations but given many people here think Trade is a bad thing why would you have a problem with that?

Comments are closed.