You would have to be blind, deaf and very stupid not to recognise that the economic model on which the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), and all the other acronyms that peddle the same toxic recipe, is in deep crisis around the world. Rallies for Democracy that will be held around this country on Saturday 10th September, which link the TPPA to climate action, te Tiriti o Waitangi, social justice and workers’ rights, are the latest manifestation of that disquiet.
An optimist might hope, against all the odds, that the National government has seen the writing on the wall in neon signs and accepts the need for a first principles rethink of New Zealand’s trade policy. Instead, they have embarked on what is euphemistically called a ‘refresh’ of their tired old model. This includes another charm offensive from new trade minister Todd McClay, whose has just hosted a webcast show-and-tell in Wellington and Auckland with the deputy secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade and chief TPPA negotiator David Walker. Apparently they have been talking to business for some time.
The new strategy centres on four action points, which are all about ways to consolidate and extend the neoliberal deregulatory agenda for the future. It is largely irrelevant anyway, as the refreshed strategy is not intended to affect any existing negotiations, by which time they will have signed away our future anyway.
Despite a promise to listen, all we got in return at the Auckland meeting were the same old clichés about New Zealand as an island nation depends on trade (which no one disputes) and reassurances that governments would never give away the right to regulate for legitimate public policy purposes.
National, MFAT and the business lobbies seems to be gambling that the backlash against globalised capitalism is a short-lived blip in a linear process of ever-more extensive agreements. As newly elevated Green MP Barry Coates and I warned at the meeting, failure to recognise and address the deep concerns that motivated an unprecedented resistance to the TPPA will only deepen the crisis of legitimacy facing these kinds of deals.
Popular and political rejection of the TPPA in the US, acknowledgement by the French and German ministers that the UE-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a dead duck, the majority vote for Brexit in the UK are all evidence of a systemic crisis in the model.
Poorer countries are also walking away from ‘free trade’ agreements that will cripple them and deepen their subservience to major powers. Tanzania and Nigeria have just backed out of mega agreements with the EU. Closer to home, Papua New Guinea has said it won’t join the self-serving anti-development treaty between Australia and New Zealand and the Pacific Island Countries known as PACER-plus. Vanuatu’s government is consulting on whether to follow suit.
The UNCTAD talks of a crisis of legitimacy in the investment arbitration system. Significant countries like South Africa, India and Indonesia have been withdrawing from the bilateral investment treaties that provide charters of corporate rights and a booming business for a ‘mafia’ of international arbitration lawyers-qua-arbitrators, similar to the investment chapter in the TPPA and proposed for the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Those countries are developing various more balanced alternatives, either through new model treaties or requiring cases to be heard in national courts, as we can and should do.
But states that act as proxies for corporate power are not about to surrender. TPPA-watchers in the US warn that Team Obama is playing down the prospects of the deal passing Congress during the lame duck period between presidential administrations, so that the opposition eases off. They expect a full-on campaign by Obama to get enough votes in the House and the Senate as soon as the election is over. The prospect that the TPPA might fail has some countries, including New Zealand scrambling to inject as much as they can into the China-led RCEP.
There is still a lot of water to flow under the Brexit bridge, with a legal challenge pending and a drawn out process that seems intended to minimise the extent of real change. A bilateral free trade agreement with the UK would be as bad, in a country still dominated by bureaucrats and politicians who are committed to the legacy of Thatcher and Blair and an economic captive to the City of London.
While TTIP has been written off in Europe, the equally toxic Canada-EU Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) is being pushed aggressively by the European Commission, which wants to bring it into force on an interim basis before the parliaments of member states get a chance to vote on it, if they do at all. With so many US companies established in Canada, CETA becomes a de facto TTIP.
When I was in Nairobi recently for the UNCTAD’s World Investment Forum it became clear that Canada and the EU were leading a concerted counter-strategy to pre-empt the collapse of the international investment regime. The Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) being negotiated under secrecy in Geneva has become the fall back option for many of the worst elements of TPPA and TTIP.
Back in Aotearoa, the Key government remains in a state of denial. Labour it still sitting on the fence. If the pro-TPPA Shane Jones stands for New Zealand First their staunch opposition may also change. Hopefully Barry Coates joining the Greens in Parliament will sharpen their resistance to these deals and promotion of alternatives.
The time has come to develop a clear and considered alternative trade policy strategy. A number of us from various organisations will be working on that over the next few months with a view to asking political parties to commit to it as they lead into election year. I fear, however, that nothing will really change until there is a root and branch cleanout of MFAT, who are desperate to conclude the web of binding and enforceable agreements that will lock in their agenda for decades to come. Given the power that MFAT now wields in the central policy making machine that is probably the most pressing, and problematic challenge in turning this Titanic around.
Meanwhile, see you all at the Rally for Democracy on Saturday