Trans-Pacific deal just leaking... or is it sunk?

President Obama has made a Trans-Pacific Trade deal is top eocnomic priority, but his own party has stared him down and now the entire deal hangs by a thread

For a man immersed in the nuanced arts of diplomatic speak and what are always called "sensitive trade negotiations", Trade Minister Tim Groser likes to call a spade a spade. Or a trade deal a bit of a mess. And that's his take on the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Early this morning New Zealand time the US House of Representatives denied President Barack Obama the fast-track authority he needs to get the TPP deal done. In a typically complex bit of US politics, the House voted against not the authority itself, but against a package of assistance for workers who might lose their jobs as a result of the free-trade deal.

It went on to support the fast-track authority itself -- which allows some hope for supporters that a procedural fix could yet be devised next week to get this through -- but that's likely to go nowhere. Without the workers' assistance, either the Senate or president himself could yet scupper any progress. It's hard to imagine how supporters can find a way through this (yet in US politics, there's almost always a deal to be had).

Within a few hours of the vote, Tim Groser was on The Nation saying just how pessimistic he now is about a deal being done. Look at this:

Groser: "... the fundamental problem is that there is extreme weak support inside the US Democratic Party for trade, and whether or not there is a procedural way round this, that's the rock in the road.

Lisa Owen: "If there isn't, what happens, if you can't get around that rock in the road?"

Groser:  "Assume they can't get around the rock in the road, obviously, we're not going to sign off on this until we know what the answer to that is. But let's assume for the sake of the discussion that's the case, well, we will not do TPP any time soon. It's as simple as that. And that will be a major opportunity lost for New Zealand, unfortunately, if that proves to be the case."

Which is as gloomy as I've ever heard Groser after so many years working on this deal. If they can't wrangle a procedural work-around in the next few days, this puts the TPP back at least two years... maybe even sinks it.

While estimates vary, it's hard to imagine this wouldn't cost New Zealand billions. It's also a political embarrassment for the very pro-free trade National Party. For all its talk of FTAs, deals with India, Russia and the Gulf States are all stalled. And now this.

In 2-3 years there will be different political leaders in some of the 12 negotiating countries and who knows whether the political will might remain.

I have mixed feelings about this. I accept how good trade is for peace and prosperity and the boost a deal like this could give a post-GFC world. But I also doubt how much access it would really give our agricultural exporters to the prized US and Japanese markets.

And whether this deal is now on the rocks or simply sunk, the lesson has to be that secrecy is no way to win in politics. I can accept to a point that negotiations by their nature need to be in confidence. I've argued in defence of that before. I mean, imagine negotiating a house sale by telling bidders the lowest price you're prepared to accept.

But you can't expose nations to, for example, law suits from multi-nationals that could undermine their very sovereignty and then be surprised when law-makers in said countries won't vote for the deal. And perhaps trade deals should stick to trade.

The potential for law suits by corporates is a downside risk any country with any brain or sense of national pride will be very wary of.

So after years of effort, what would be the world's biggest ever trade deal is now at risk of collapse. After the failure of the WTO's Doha Round it must leave trade negotiators wondering exactly how on earth they can kick-start world trade.