Acronyms and secret handshakes no way to sell a trade deal

When it comes to signing trade deals there are two principles which should never be up for negotiation; the net benefit to your country has to outweigh any concessions, otherwise what’s the point? And you never trade away fundamentals, like the right to legislate to protect your environment, the health of your citizens, or your education system.

The National government hasn’t been able to reassure us that they really will protect these principles in their secret Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations.

I don’t have a problem with the draft negotiating document remaining secret. I don’t need to know what’s being said behind closed doors as the twelve participating countries try to keep Japan on side, and Japan tries to keep tariffs on its beef, dairy, rice and sugar.

Good luck with that.

But the government should be encouraging public debate on the issues around TPP; like fears that tobacco companies will threaten to sue governments for plain packaging; our ongoing ability to buy cheap medicines through Pharmac; or threats to outlaw parallel importing.

Then people will feel like they’re having a say, their concerns are being heard, and any nutty conspiracy theories won't get airtime.

The National government hasn't done a good job of selling the benefits of a TPP deal. They’ll have only themselves to blame if our parliament fails to ratify something they haven’t asked us to believe in.

Because TPP could be a game-changer for our economy. 

If the biggest economics in the world remove their tariffs to the products of TPP member countries, imagine if we weren’t part of that? It could cost us not to be part of TPP. Korea has a FTA with Chile which means that Chile can sell its kiwifruit to Korea tariff free. Our kiwifruit exporters have to pay a 43% tariff. We simply can’t compete. Imagine if that were true in nearly all the APEC countries, from Canada and the US to Mexico and Japan?

Compare the TPP process to the long negotiations led by Labour’s Trade Minister Phil Goff to get a  FTA with China. Phil Goff not only encouraged public debate, he took the critics of free trade like the CTU and Greenpeace on board, even taking them to China with him so our union representatives could meet Chinese unions, for example. 

He took a bi-partisan approach to all trade negotiations. Tim Grocer, opposition trade spokesperson at the time, got to go with him to Hong Kong during trade negotiations. I’m not sure the invitation has been reciprocated today.

Phil Goff did that because there were real fears in New Zealand that our small country of four million people would be swamped by a country of 1.3 billion. He recognised that the best way to alleviate those fears was to be inclusive and make his critics part of the process.

Today our exports have risen from $2 billion to $11 billion, largely due to access to Chinese markets for our dairy products. And the trade balance is in New Zealand’s favour. We sell more to them than they sell to us.

Infact there’s a really good sales job to be made about why we do trade deals which is nothing to do with trade. Just look at the EU. To qualify for membership of the EU trade block, former Soviet countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Estonia had to improve their labour laws, increase the minimum wage, and demonstrate their workplaces were safe. So there can be social benefits if a trade deal is done well. Not to mention the public good of a united Europe, no longer torn apart by war. (The best thing that could happen to prevent more violence in Ukraine would be for the country to join the EU.)

Why isn’t the National government giving us an idea of what some of the social benefits of the TPP might be for us? We may not be an emerging country about to improve our labour laws to qualify. But imagine if countries like Malaysia and Vietnam have to increase their wages and improve their work places? New Zealand workers wouldn’t have to compete with low wage workers in poorer countries.

National needs to do a better job of involving us all in the horse trading that goes on to get a deal like TPP across the line. It'll be too late once a non-negotiable draft reaches parliament for ratification.