Opponents of the TPP have been vague about their alternative

It’s time for opponents of the TPP to stop the gesture politics and answer some questions - like what is the alternative you propose? Do you really believe we can stay out of the TPP on our own? And do you want to pull out of the agreement after it is signed?

Despite a summer of opportunity to read every clause of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, opponents of the TPP have failed to produce a clause showing the agreement requires each of us to surrender our first born to the corporate masters of neo-liberalism, and nor have they discovered any other nugget that sustains their vilification of the trade pact.

Meanwhile, falsehoods about the agreement’s perceived shortcomings have proliferated. Andrew Little vaguely implied that the agreement prevents a future government from legislating against Chinese buying land - a position so racially selective it is indefensible, but which is anyway completely wrong.

The current tack of protestors is that the government has ‘no mandate’ to sign. Hence the strangest response of all to the TPP  - a call for the unelected Governor-General to step in and 'refuse assent to legislation’ (although it’s not clear what legislation that would be; none is required for the government to sign the TPP. Any consequent amendments to domestic law would need to follow ordinary parliamentary procedure).

There are few things more obviously undemocratic than the prospect of an unelected Governor-General over-ruling the policy decisions of the democratically-elected government. We would call a manoeuvre like that a coup d’etat, and it is an ugly position for progressives to advocate. 

It’s also a reversal of logic to claim the government is 'denying democracy’ and has ‘no mandate’ to sign the TPP. No matter what your opinion is of the National Government, it was elected with one of the highest vote shares in our history, and explicitly campaigned at the election on its promise to pursue the TPP after lengthy public debate about the merits of the agreement stretching back to the initiation of the process by the previous Labour government. 

If ‘ceding sovereignty’ is your beef, or you believe international agreements are undemocratic, you will need to wave your placards at New Zealand’s commitment to the historic Paris climate change agreement in December as well. Would the Greens promoting the No Mandate campaign tolerate the Governor General blocking that?

Some of the TPP’s opponents have portrayed the agreement as a litmus test for progressive politics. They think that if you believe it should be signed, you must be a right-winger, a ‘neo-liberal’, and a heretic. 

The most important economic trend today is increasing globalisation. Far fewer goods and services are today being made by artisans in a single plant or city as they were after the industrial revolution; We should not be fooled by romantic talk of a local, craft-based economy - the stuff of life is being assembled out of ideas, services, financing, manufacturing and logistics that are sourced and combined globally, and in this globalised economy we must find the jobs and incomes to sustain our lifestyle. 

And therefore it is not progressive to divide economic argument between a ‘right’ that supports global trade and a ‘left’ that seeks to prevent it. Globalisation will happen whether anyone wants it to or not. The job of the progressive left is to influence this process so that everyday working people secure their share of the new global economy. 

If we want our rights recognised in the global economy and to provide fairly for ourselves, then one of the most important instruments will be international agreements.

The rights and needs of New Zealanders will not be respected in deals we are not part of.

For this reason, the intellectual burden is on opponents to demonstrate that their alternative is more progressive than signing the TPP. As representatives from each participating country arrives in New Zealand for the signing ceremony, they would have John Key call a press conference and announce, "Sorry folks, we are not going to do it - but you guys go ahead and sign. And, although we say the agreement could be improved, and we decline to sign it for this reason, we renounce any influence on it in future."

And then what? Our major trading partners - virtually the entire Pacific other than China - would be in a trade pact, and we would be out of it. On our own. (And, remember, the opponents of the TPP don’t want trade and investment deals with China either.)

Wealthy New Zealanders would be fine. They always look after themselves, because the thing about money is it gives you options. The rest of us would not be as fortunate.

Opponents claim the economic effect would not be much. Officials calculated modest gains on the basis of no one signing the TPP or everyone signing it - but the relevant counterfactual is a TPP that everyone signs except us. The divide between in and out in that scenario would be large.

And, anyway, opponents also said there would be few economic benefits from the trade agreement signed with China in 2008, when New Zealand’s exports to China were worth $2.2 billion. Now our exports to China are up to $11.8 billion. In 2008 the government expected the China FTA would add $225-350 million a year to our exports. It has more than doubled expectations.

So, again, what do opponents of the TPP propose to replace the agreement that offers this growth? You cannot say you support the right of New Zealand working people to have a good job and provide for their families and also say you want government to provide public services and take care of our needy if you also advocate depriving the economy of the means to earn a living.

But the TPP is going to be signed whether its critics like it or not. Therefore the more meaningful question now is whether you advocate withdrawing from our commitments. If opponents do not advocate walking away from the agreement when it is signed, then protest is nothing more than gesture politics. But no one credible advocates breaking our commitments, and pulling out of TPP.

No one, not even its authors, pretends the TPP is flawless. Critics have highlighted New Zealand’s concessions.

Agreements intrinsically involve trade offs. Do critics of the TPP accept that getting countries to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do is the point of agreements? If they didn’t involve tradeoffs and compromise you wouldn’t need agreements. Or do opponents say New Zealand should only sign an agreement if there is no compromise on anything? Or do they propose a candy land where agreements can be made in which no one ever needs to compromise? It is reasonable to expect that discussion should focus not on concessions, but on the balance between concessions and the offsetting gain. 

We should always be alert to whether a trade-off is worthwhile, and always seek to secure as much as we can. But in any negotiation the decision is always whether we take this agreement our partners can accept, or we walk away in favour of an alternative - so, critics, where is this fecund and enriching alternative?

Making a litmus test for heresy out of the TPP has made opposition to its signing reactionary instead of progressive. There is nothing progressive about a position that would see our ability to earn a living by selling stuff to the world reduced, where living standards fall for those who need to work for a living, unemployment goes even higher, and the government’s ability to provide for citizens is reduced. 

The campaign against the TPP has been long on knee jerk slogans and bumper stickers and fundamentally weak on a hopeful and compassionate vision.

It has been a mistake for progressives to cede the argument about security and opportunity for New Zealanders in a time of unprecedented global economic change. It's time for those on the left who support this trade deal to speak out and make the progressive case for signing.