This week, the world mourned the passing of one the greatest artists of our era. David Bowie, masterpiece of sound, vision, fashion and fame, turned 69, released a new album, appeared across the internet looking a million dollars in a dark suit and hat (no socks: ever stylish) and then…and then…he was dead. Major Tom. The Thin White Duke. Ziggy Stardust. Dead.
How I wished it was a hoax. But no. It was The Guardian website I was reading, reporting confirmation from Bowie’s son. Nearly a week on, it’s still hard to comprehend. He moved through time and space with such otherworldly grace that loving him was like loving the alien. Because he seemed immortal, his mortality shocked. It wasn’t that he died young like Elvis or Lennon. It was that he…well…died at all. Planet Earth was blue with tears and the international outpouring of grief revealed a scale of honour and respect few can inspire.
Of course, that didn’t stop them trying. Like this headline from the NZ Herald: “Editorial: TPP signing an honour, let’s respect it”. After flat out local denials, the (Chilean) Government announced that the Trans Pacific Partnership will be signed in Auckland on 4 February. It seems we are “about to have the honour of hosting the formal signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement by trade ministers from 12 nations of the Pacific rim. And it is an honour. This is the most comprehensive and far-sighted economic agreement the world has seen in our lifetime, possibly of all time.”
The Herald concedes “it is too much to hope any fears now assuaged will reduce the scale of protest at the signing. But it should not be too much to ask that those philosophically opposed to free trade respect the views of those who disagree with them, and let this country host the occasion with dignity and pride”.
Respect? Honour? Dignity? Pride? Remember, we’re talking about TPP not David Bowie.
A couple of days later in the same paper, John Key’s biographer John Roughan did his best to assuage the fearsome, whose “ only remaining concern may be investors’ rights to sue for compensation in independent international tribunals if a government’s action unreasonably reduces the value of an investment. But that is not new, disputes tribunals were part of post-war international trade rules, and the principle is perfectly reasonable. It is unlikely any government New Zealanders would elect, whether led by National or Labour, would need to be taken to a tribunal. They would expect to compensate an investor for a policy change the investor could not reasonably have foreseen. I don’t know what kind of government protesters have in mind when they call the TPP’s dispute provisions a threat to “democracy”.
How could it be that the most comprehensive, far-sighted economic agreement the world has ever seen pose a threat to democracy? Here’s my take and I’d be interested to hear where I’m going wrong:
- If you are an investor under TPP, you have new, secretly negotiated, supra-legal, far-reaching, irreversible, unappealable, unlimited RIGHTS to protect your investment from a government if it acts against your financial interests, including the right to sue for compensation for potential (not just actual) loss of earnings.
- If you are NOT an investor under TPP, you have new, secretly negotiated, supra-legal, far-reaching, irreversible, unappealable, unlimited LIABILITIES to recompense investors if your government acts against their financial interests, including exposure to be sued for compensation for potential (not just actual) loss of earnings.
The issue then is (and this for you John Roughan), is it is a function of democracy to provide a two-track judicial system: one for investors and one for non-investors, which provides unlimited irreversible, unappealable rights for one side and unlimited irreversible, unappealable liabilities for the other?
In short, do you believe investor rights trump human rights? If you think they do, if you think this proposition is reasonable, you should support TPP. If you think they don’t, if you think this proposition is treasonable, you should oppose TPP. So far, I’m sold on the latter proposition.
And it’s not just me. On 10 January in The Guardian, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz expressed his hopes that 2016 would be a better year for trade agreements – and “the death of TPP”, which he described as the worst trade agreement in decades (let’s face it, Tim Groser was our negotiator).
According to Stiglitz, “the problem is not so much with the agreement’s trade provisions, but with the “investment” chapter, which severely constrains environmental, health, and safety regulation, and even financial regulations with significant macroeconomic impacts. In particular, the chapter gives foreign investors the right to sue governments in private international tribunals when they believe government regulations contravene the TPP’s terms (inscribed on more than 6,000 pages)”. He continues: “Obama has sought to perpetuate business as usual, whereby the rules governing global trade and investment are written by US corporations for US corporations. This should be unacceptable to anyone committed to democratic principles.”
With TPP, America sets the rules. In his final State of the Union Address this week, Obama said it himself: “With TPP, China does not set the rules in that region; we do.” Sound like a partnership to you?
Stiglitz concludes that” those seeking closer economic integration have a special responsibility to be strong advocates of global governance reforms: if authority over domestic policies is ceded to supranational bodies, then the drafting, implementation, and enforcement of the rules and regulations has to be particularly sensitive to democratic concerns. Unfortunately, that was not always the case in 2015. In 2016, we should hope for the TPP’s defeat and the beginning of a new era of trade agreements that don’t reward the powerful and punish the weak.”
So when John Roughan disingenuously ponders on what kind of government protesters have in mind when they call the TPP’s dispute provisions a threat to democracy, Stiglitz gives us the answer: the kind of government that would “reward the powerful and punish the weak”. Sound familiar?
Respect? Honour? Dignity? Pride? Not for these men who sold the world.