Comment When the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks were in Dallas, it was both inspiring and enlightening to be with a range of Asia-Pacific business representatives talking about the opportunities afforded to countries and companies through opening up trade and developing economic ties. Same thing in San Diego.
Much of the media commentary detailed empirical examples of the benefits of trade and investment which was useful because the pre-election Obama Administration was all but silent. We’re talking about trade that gives consumers choices and lets countries play to their strengths. Globalisation which gets people thinking outside their borders. Investment which allows less developed economies to think beyond subsistence (or even existence).
Also present was a contingent of people at both meetings who were critical of trade liberalisation. There’s the Third World Network which has a first world networking ability that would leave most corporates in the dust. There are groups with the word “citizens” in their name who sound like they’re plucked from a George Orwell novel and generally behave accordingly. The bars are cluttered with earnest people supporting the oppressed over a beverage or three. And then there are some unknown but inevitably vocal arrest-addicted nutters who like to disrupt formal functions by throwing things and yelling deeply insightful phrases such as “TPP. Not. For. ME.” (At least it rhymes)
So now here we are in Auckland. There is little sense of momentum. The issues are complex and the process involved. Who knows whether the parties sitting around the table will prioritise a regionally helpful outcome over domestic vested interests and fears? Both John Key and Tim Groser have said that unless it’s a comprehensive agreement that is of tangible benefit to New Zealand, then there won’t be an agreement. There is nothing to give away if there is nothing to be gained. Mr Key “gets” New Zealand’s economy and Mr Groser is undoubtedly the smartest and most strategic Trade Minister we’ve ever had so those statements have weight.
In terms of the public dialogue here, I have not seen much. I have not observed a lot of analysis of what actually drives the New Zealand economy and why it’s so critical that we explore the foreign trade options open to us and deliver certainty to exporters. With the exception of a few key people, there’s a muted business voice. Possibly I’ve missed a number of in-depth articles outlining just how much New Zealand has gained from the trade agreements we have – and crikey we have gained such a lot. Missing in action are the many New Zealanders who hold patents overseas, including in the U.S., and are making money from them. Their intellectual property is their income (and ours in many cases). There’s a distinct lack of analysis regarding what trade has done socially, economically and politically for economies around the world coupled with an astounding deficit of understanding as to why a country needs to sell things in order to buy things. It’s all wrapped up in a slightly smug, anti-corporate, anti-American sense of self-righteousness. There’s strange language in the press about the U.S. wanting to get rid of Pharmac which doesn’t relate to any recent pharmaceutical positions I’ve read (and yes, I have bothered to read them unlike most of the commentators who clearly haven’t even got the nous to ask the industry here what it thinks).
What I have heard is…….Jane Kelsey. Jane Kelsey. Jane Kelsey. Jane Kelsey. Self-professed trade expert. Alleged (at least practicing) academic. Champion of “the little people” (except hobbits) and someone – I’m assuming given how she gets around – with an air-points account which would be the envy of many. She talks up the fact that stakeholders are excluded from the venue without noting that the reason for that is because some of her companions have behaved so appallingly and threateningly that it’s not possible to have them there (thanks for shutting us all out Jane). She says the negotiations are being conducted in secret and everything should be public when she’s made misguided media mischief with any information made available (thanks for removing the mature information exchange Jane). She says that New Zealand will lose from a trade deal because it must be bad (thanks for biased absolutely spurious commentary Jane). My enduring memory of her dates from the earlier TPP round that New Zealand hosted. She was popping in to the function at the Maritime Museum to swig a glass of wine before heading back outside to join the protesters for a spell. “We hate this process…..just a splash more please…must rush…placards to pose with.”
Her point that it all should be open is particularly naïve. Would you buy a house and go along to the vendor saying “the most I could pay is $300,000, I’d ideally like to pay $200,000, I could consider $250,000, I’ll be pointing out some of the faults to get a discount and pretending to be disinterested so you don’t think I really want it. Ready to sign?” It’s a negotiation, not a university debate. This is about the future of New Zealand, not about the next academic grant. How will our businesses grow and survive? I recently did some tariff work for an amazing woman making high end duvets, manufactured in Christchurch using wool from a family farm. They have the potential to make 30,000 of these per year for export to the U.S. market. The first shipment has already arrived Stateside. But it took a great deal of effort and help from David Walker’s trade team at MFAT and others to ascertain that a quoted tariff of over 18% was quite wrong and it should actually be less than a quarter of that. Imagine if that tariff was zero? TPP is about real people creating real jobs and trying to compete in a cutthroat international environment. Jane Kelsey wouldn’t care. She doesn’t need to make anything……but noise. The rest of us will just make do, tune out the patronising ideological lectures about how we should be living our lives and running our economy, and hope that TPP becomes yet another milestone in our international trade journey.
- Penny Macdonald is a trade policy consultant working with a number of corporate and industry associations with an interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership