Going nuclear over the TPP: Is trade the new divide?

Is the TPP the current equivalent of New Zealand's anti-nuclear stance? How did it become such a defining issue? And will its impact last?

Among all the controversy and welter of opinions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I have been increasingly wondering, why has the TPP become the litmus test of progressivism in New Zealand?

It is not such a defining issue in other TPP nations; the debate seems particularly fevered in New Zealand.

Trade deals have always attracted opposition, but from the usual suspects; Jane Kelsey springs to mind. So when she opposed the China FTA, one could safely say she represented around 10 to 15% of New Zealanders. The Green Party could be reliably relied upon to vote against all trade deals. But fundamentally that was it. These views had no wider impact.

But TPP is different. Nearly half the Parliament is against it, though it's clear that Labour holds a few dissenters from the party line. They will buckle to party discipline because they know Labour's vote will not derail the agreement. The political divide is reflected in the wider community. Whatever the actual number, it is clear that a substantial number of New Zealanders either directly oppose the TPP or at least are uneasy about it.

For the Left it appears the TPP is one of the key determiners of whether you are a true believer or not. So it is much more than just the 10 or 15 % who always oppose trade agreements, it is seen as a test of whether you are on the right side of history.

Many Maori certainly see it this way. Thus the fact the TPP has a specific exclusion for the Treaty of Waitangi is irrelevant, since the TPP debate is not about its actual terms, it is about where you stand. There would not be a Maori academic who would be for TPP, it would be seen as tantamount to saying you did not support te tino rangatiratanga. Any Maori professionals who support TPP will not be in the Universities, they will be in business or the professions.

So is TPP the present day equivalent of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance of the 1980’s?

The nuclear debate was the great ideological battle in Labour during the early 1980’s when Labour was still in opposition. It was not just about anti-nuclearism, it was where you stood in relation to ANZUS. Thus when Labour took office in 1984, the future of ANZUS was immediately in doubt, and within a year we were out, on the back of the “neither confirm or deny” policy of the US Navy.

The TPP debate does not have nearly the same clarity. After all it was Labour who strenuously worked to bring the US into the P4 trade negotiations. Four of the six of the Last Labour leaders including Helen Clark support New Zealand being in TPP, even if, as was argued by Brian Easton, it is only for the reason that the risk of being out is too great.

But for many on the left these kinds of finely nuanced arguments are irrelevant. You are either for TPP or against. It is why Labour has used the sovereignty argument as the basis of their opposition. Their message makers know that it has a powerful emotional hook. After all who would voluntarily sign away New Zealand’s sovereignty – only a fool or a knave.

The fact that 11 other nations have done so is seen as irrelevant. Well, it is really only the 10 nations apart from the United States, since it the United States corporates that are sucking away everyone else’s sovereignty. At least going by the blogs, the other ten nations have done so because there leaders have been corrupted or blackmailed by the United States. How this applies to the Vietnamese communists is a bit of a mystery.

But back to New Zealand. Will the TPP debate define the New Zealand political divide for decades? As yet that is unclear, but history may provide a guide. There are some issues where your position in opposition is irrelevant. Who now really recalls that National voted against the Supreme Court? In contrast National's position on the Iraq war is frequently raised as proof of wrong judgement and has tainted their decision in the recent deployment of trainers to Iraq.

I suspect Labour will not be able to easily say their stance on TPP is equivalent to National's stance on the Supreme Court; i.e just one of those things you do in opposition.

Too many on the Left have taken comfort from Labours' position on the TPP. Similarly business will have taken keen note of Labour's stance, and marked them down because of it. Of course Labour may be hoping this debate is a oncer.

When the TPP is in force, and all the terrible portents have been shown to be false, Labour will expect to not have to deal with the issue again. When the Regional Comprehensive Partnership happens (which includes China) it is hard to see it generating anything like the same hatred as TPP. Even Jane Kelsey may love it. Mind you, RCEP may be subsumed into TPP. But even if that happens, it simply will not be controversial.

If this is the case then the TPP debate will blow over. Much Ado about Nothing. Certainly many in the centre will be hoping that is the case.

But the TPP could also be the portent of a re-galvanised left, much as Jeremy Corbyn has been in the UK, or Bernie Sanders in the United States. Both have energised a new generation of left activists.

In that case it will be like the nuclear debate of the 1980’s, a defining event for political activism that lasted decades.