On September 15, a group of activists affiliated with the Show Us Ya Text* campaign will converge on Parliament in an attempt to seize the text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), an agreement that has so far been negotiated under secrecy.
The potentially disastrous consequences of the TPPA for New Zealand workers has been well-documented. From the data that is available, Jane Kelsey (in her 2010 book No Ordinary Deal) and others are able to conclude that multi-national corporations will be the major beneficiaries of any deal, at the expense of working people. Secrecy protects the agreement from public scrutiny, making proper and informed criticism difficult. Herein lies the irony of John Key rebuking anti-TPPA protestors for being ‘misinformed’ in recent weeks. The words of John Milton come to mind: ‘They who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them for their blindness.’
The Show Us Ya Text campaign therefore represents a fulfilment of democratic principles—and so it is framed by organisers. Kelsey and others have demolished any suggestion that trade deals must necessarily be negotiated in secret. If the TPPA is truly to be negotiated in the public interest and on its behalf, the details of the agreement should be publicly accessible. In one sense, a campaign to seize the TPPA challenges a notion that has been central to the policy decisions of the National Government—that democracy is limited to elections. It was this that allowed John Key to dismiss the 2013 citizens-initiated referendum on asset sales, on grounds that the election provided sufficient mandate to sell public assets. Curiously, on issues that pose no threat to corporate or state power, such as changing the symbols on the flag, National’s idea of democracy becomes strangely more robust. Secrecy and doubt are cornerstones of National’s public relations strategy. Indeed, the mantra of ‘these things are always done in secret’ is what ‘mum and dad investors’ was to asset sales. That companies and investment institutions quickly became the biggest private shareholders of our assets—not ‘mums and dads’—was unimportant after privatisation. By challenging government secrecy on the TPPA, some of these contradictions might be brought again into focus.
The September 15 action is being described by organisers as a citizen ‘search and seizure’. Planning meetings were held in all major centres this week. In Auckland, a public meeting hosted by the YES Collective was attended by around forty people. Planning and preparation for the action is set to be rigorous. People who agree to participate will undergo ‘training’ in non-violent direct action, and ‘peacekeepers’ will be deployed to ensure against violence by anyone involved. The involvement of a Greenpeace campaigner in the organising team comes as no surprise. At every stage of the Show Us Ya Text campaign, principles of openness, transparency and non-violence are forefront.
The campaign has obvious limitations—for one, the practical likelihood of gaining access to the TPPA documents is better left to the imagination. When this criticism was raised at the Auckland meeting, a facilitator half-joked that ‘if we get in, we’ll probably just go desk to desk until we find it’. But similar actions abroad have been successful in securing public access to secret trade negotiations. In Canada, an attempt by activists to seize the secret text of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement—which, like the TPPA, was set to effect ‘degradation of environmental regulations, weakened labour laws, and the subjugation of national laws to secretive, pro-corporate tribunals’—resulted in the details of the agreement being made public less than a week later. In US history, the notorious Counter Intelligence Programmes (COINTELPRO) of the 1960s—during which the FBI illegally surveilled and disrupted activist groups (being implicated even in the slaying of black civil rights activists)—was discovered after activists calling themselves the Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into an FBI field office and stole documents in 1971. Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and others have done much to expose the criminal actions of governments in recent years, almost always by breaking existing laws.
If the TPPA might not be seized on September 15, it should be. People should have access to information regarding a trade deal negotiated on their behalf, to which they would be bound intractably, particular when it threatens the public interest so seriously. Information that is available suggests clearly that the TPPA represents a significant threat to the economic and political sovereignty of Aotearoa and to the livelihoods of New Zealand workers. The details of the TPPA should be publicised, within the confines of the law or otherwise.
For more information or to become involved in the Show Us Ya Text campaign, go to showusyatext.org
*The author acknowledges that the name Show Us Ya Text may invoke images of jeering, drunk men.