THE CORE ELEMENTS of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) remain in place. According to Professor Jane Kelsey, the most dangerous of these, the Investor/State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions, although modified slightly for the better, continue to empower multinational corporations at the expense of participating nation states. The New Zealand Left is, thus, confronted with a dilemma: to maintain a pure oppositionist stance; or, to attempt to work with the new Labour-NZ First-Green government as it attempts to further modify and moderate the worst aspects of the agreement.
A retreat into uncompromising oppositionism would have the effect of further isolating and weakening the traditional New Zealand Left. Given that the traditional Left’s political effectiveness, after 30 years of neoliberalism, is already at an historically low-ebb, this hardly presents itself as a winning strategy. Labour, and its partners in government, would have little option but to paint its traditional leftist opponents as activists without the slightest understanding of what New Zealand governments can, and cannot, do. What’s more, in the eyes of the moderate, social-democratic Left (the traditionalists’ only feasible political allies) Jacinda Ardern’s government would be entirely justified in doing so.
Just saying “No!” to the TPP is about as helpful in the current geopolitical context as Nancy Reagan’s “Just say No” slogan was in the “War on Drugs”. It betrays a complete failure to understand the pressures being brought to bear on the New Zealand Government, both domestically and internationally. And that’s not all, knee-jerk oppositionism also fails to acknowledge the very real benefits that free trade agreements can bring to New Zealand exporters. The traditional Left, consequently, come across as economic illiterates – further diminishing their political credibility.
The example of Canada’s performance at the Apec Summit is instructive in this respect. As a nation of 36.3 million people, and with the second largest economy of the remaining eleven signatories to the TPP, its prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was far better positioned to take an uncompromising stand against the worst aspects of the agreement than the New Zealand team of Jacinda Ardern, David Parker and Winston Peters. And yet, even Trudeau was unable to resist the pressure – principally and particularly from Japan – to return to the negotiating table.
It is very easy for the traditional Left to call for grand gestures of defiance against the prevailing geopolitical realities: living with the consequences of such calls when you are in government is much harder.
What the Trudeau government does offer the New Zealand Left, however, is a lesson in how a broad, open-ended public discussion of both the costs – and the benefits – of the TPP free trade agreement was able to strengthen the hand of his government’s negotiating team. Confident that he was speaking for a majority of the Canadian people, Trudeau felt empowered to push his country’s negotiating position as hard as he could, short of damaging, seriously, Canada’s long-term diplomatic interests by inflicting a humiliating loss of face on the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
This is the course of action which the moderate, social-democratic Left, including the Council of Trade Unions, will be urging on Labour, NZ First and the Greens (neither of whom will need much in the way of convincing!) An open and “robust” discussion about the advantages and disadvantages to New Zealand of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) as the agreement has been rebranded, will allow the arguments for and against international free-trade to be energetically rehearsed – most especially the arguments against the ISDS provisions.
A strategy of “constructive engagement” with the Labour-NZ First-Green government, by promoting transparency and encouraging the emergence of a national consensus on what the CPTPP should – and should not – contain, promises much more in the way of political effectiveness and achievement than simply shouting angry oppositionist criticism from the side-lines – the location to which, most assuredly, those comrades who give heed the purist slogans of the traditional Left will find themselves consigned.