I make no apology for taking the issue of the TPPA and its impact on New Zealand seriously, and approaching it with caution.
There’s been robust debate about it among the Labour caucus, as there should be with any issue likely to have a major impact on the country.
Labour is a party of free trade. This isn’t a product of the last couple of high profile trade ministers in Labour governments. It goes back the full 80 years since we first formed a government. We have always championed the cause of better access to markets and free trade. We are a nation heavily dependent on exporting. It’s how we produce a large chunk of our wealth and generate jobs.
My own commitment to free trade goes back to my union days when I advocated strongly for the China FTA and worked with the employees of some of our biggest exporters. The CEO of one of the largest exporters at the time angrily denounced me at a meeting with the company as a traitor for doing so.
So when something comes along calling itself a free trade agreement, I take it seriously. Not uncritically, but seriously.
The National government has handled the negotiations of the TPPA appallingly. Seven years of total secrecy have aroused natural suspicion about its contents. The government did nothing to inform New Zealanders about the negotiations, the issues, progress – anything in fact. The 6000 pages of agreement were dumped in November last year and academics, NGOs and citizens have been left to work their way through the document and form their own conclusions.
Some are critical. The deal is worth less to New Zealand than the government touted. Extending copyright will add costs to libraries and universities. The cost of pharmaceuticals to New Zealand will rise.
The response of the government and its acolytes to any criticism of the agreement is becoming increasingly shrill. They don’t want a debate. Presumably, they know best.
The National Party view boils down to the TPPA being above criticism; ‘if you don’t support it you’re anti-free trade, and if you’re pro-free trade the only thing you can do is support the TPPA”. None of these propositions is correct. They just demonstrate how arrogant and undemocratic National has become.
An email from an acquaintance of mine, a strong pro-free trader and pro-TPPAer, suggested I ‘take note’ of the Canadian trade minister’s statement on the agreement. The minister, Chrystia Freeland, set out how she is dealing with the TPPA - meeting with unions, businesses, NGOs and holding town hall meetings. She called for a non-partisan debate. All of which I thought was a fantastic idea and was happy to note. Still, I did wonder why my friend hadn’t also sent it to the National Party asking them to take note.
I have read a lot of the TPPA myself. The free trade aspects are naturally attractive, even though the deal on dairy is hopeless, meat is a little better and the rest amounts to not much considering it is an agreement covering 800 million consumers and 40 per cent of the world’s GDP. The benefit of genuine free trade agreements is the potential to create new markets that previously didn’t exist.
But the TPPA isn’t just a free trade agreement. It goes way beyond free trade. And it’s necessary to look at the non-trade parts of the deal. Two things that disturb me are, first: the restriction on New Zealand legislating to regulate land sales to non-resident foreigners (Labour’s policy is to require them to build a new house, not buy an existing one, and we would be unable to do this under the TPPA); and secondly the requirement to allow other TPPA countries, their citizens (including corporates) to have a say on changes to many New Zealand laws and regulations. For instance we would have to let Carlos Slim, the wealthy Mexican telecom company owner, vet any regulation of our telecommunications industry.
Constraints on law-making and opening up our political system to overseas interests is unheard of. Every citizen is entitled to know their parliament is responsible only to them, not subject to the direction and influence of outside forces.
As a social democratic party, we have always stood for effective parliamentary democracy. That means a system that is accountable only to those who elect its representatives and which serves all citizens, not the privileged and the elite.
There can be no trade-off between citizens’ democratic rights and economic interests. We don’t put a price on our democratic system, and it is not for sale.
This marks the TPPA out as being different to any other free trade agreement I know. I do not support the TPPA in this form.