Tech sector vital in trade talks

Getting along to the Trans Pacific Partnership stakeholders’ day was rather like being involved in a mad-cap version of speed-dating with less-than-optimal results.

There were close on 80 presentations in four separate streams. All these in just over five hours with stakeholders and media zooming off like a giant locust swarm whenever word got out (usually via text) that someone was saying something particularly insightful – or inciteful, for that matter.

What wasn’t really addressed head-on, although the EMA’s Kim Campbell and Catalyst IT’s Don Christie touched on this, was whether the New Zealand business voice surrounding these negotiations has been so captive to the predominant agricultural industry sector, and its funders, that NZ business as a whole has not given sufficient attention to what New Zealand’s total future interests are in this technology-driven age.

This is important as the latest Tin100 Index illustrates NZ’s top 100 technology companies bring in export revenues of $7.28 billion. The growth potential is huge.

What was interesting was the divergent views in the New Zealand business community on TPP.

The default position for New Zealand’s trade negotiators has long been to put agriculture gains at the centre of our negotiating effort.

New Zealand thus pursues greater market access and reduction in tariffs for agriculture exports at the same time as it lowers its domestic barriers in areas where we don’t have a competitive advantage such as manufacturing, footwear and clothing.

BusinessNZ’s Phil O’Reilly and the NZ US Council’s Suze Reynolds gave a staunch defence of the gains to the New Zealand economy – through growth and jobs – if TPP is done.

But a concern also emerged that gains on the goods-access front, to the US market in particular, might be traded off against this country giving its imprimatur to the prescriptive US regulatory regime on intellectual property.

The issue is not that simplistic – and Mfat is doing a lot of work to ensure this is not the upshot – but the complexity of the issues involved in IP (they are intellectually hard) means there is more suspicion than light about this topic.

Don Christie – founder of Catalyst IT and a leading New Zealand expert on open-source software – was particularly vocal.

“TPP is a big missed opportunity,” he told the stakeholders.

Christie claimed technology under TPP was in effect “a 19th-century land grab” as restrictionist intellectual property laws backed by the US would invite a range of “unintended side effects” on a number of industries.

Christie called on the Government to use hard facts instead of succumbing to lobbyists when making decisions on intellectual property and said an evidence-based IP regime was required, challenging negotiators to “put a value on the suppression of innovation in New Zealand”.

Christie’s theme was picked up to some extent by the EMA’s Kim Campbell, who acknowledged the TPP was of seminal importance for developing job opportunities here.

However, said Campbell, alongside NZ’s continuing struggle to win access for our agricultural products “we need a completely separate work stream dealing with intellectual property”.

“It is evident that in terms of the TPP, intellectual property is a complicated rat’s nest full of ambiguity and vested interests … well-resourced groups have the capacity to subvert the TPP process if we are not most careful to ensure it is robust and enduring.

“New Zealand business will be paying close attention to the details of this part of the agreement because tomorrow’s globally integrated business world will be driven by intellectual property.”

The Auckland Chamber of Commerce’s Michael Barnett said later that New Zealand business must take account of the technology platforms that will be a large part of future agreements.

Barnett is forming a relationship between his chamber and the US and Australian chambers.

“When you consider the similar roles chambers of commerce will have in the TPP process many believe we should find a forum for regular dialogue and information sharing.

“Business associations such as ours will be responsible for making sure our companies – particularly our small- and medium-sized companies – fully understand these opportunities and recognise the benefits trade agreements can bring.

“Additionally, the TPP will require our organisations to stay engaged long-term in the policy implementation phase as we seek to ensure the agreement stays dynamic to the changing needs of business.”

The rationale behind the stakeholders’ day was for the various players – NGOs, business and farming lobby groups, unions, trade lobbyists, IP lawyers and companies – to inform the negotiating process by letting the negotiators from the 11 countries involved in the Trans Pacific Partnership talks know about various wrinkles in the proposed deal, claimed outrages against civil society and (though there probably wasn’t enough on this score) meaty suggestions to ensure that economic integration of the Asia-Pacific does turn out to be a win-win agreement.

The NGOs – banned from the Sky City Convention Centre until the stakeholders day – were relatively predictable.

Many of their beefs had been well-publicised during pre-negotiation coverage.

The United States was deemed the free-trade bogey irrespective of the fact it is also lending negotiating help to less developed nations such as Vietnam to ensure they get a decent result.

Chief US trade negotiator Barbara Weisel and her team have coined a term – “on the doorstep of the doorstep” – to refer to the state-of-play on the TPP negotiations as the 15th round wraps up.

In effect, much of the debate on “sensitive” issues has been kicked forward to the 16th round of negotiations which will take place in Singapore in March.

This negotiation has not tackled the really hard stuff.

Around the negotiating rooms it was clear the US negotiators are under immense pressure from Congress as well as the American business community to get a big result.

Selling TPP on Capitol Hill will not be easy as American politicians have to convince their constituents that opening their market further to small nations is in their interest.

It will require a major effort by President Barack Obama to convince Americans that the real gain will come from the reciprocal access their companies and farmers will get to other markets, thus increasing that nation’s quantum of exports and jobs.

 This column is republished courtesy of APN.

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