TPP: Early harvests are ill-advised as there’s nothing to bring back to the barn

Penny Macdonald

Many trade negotiators in Indonesia for the famous pre-Bogor APEC meetings were excited about the emerging vision of free trade.  It was hard to believe that everyone was poised to sign on to such an ambitious goal.  In a bar in Jakarta, having somewhat patronisingly congratulated one Senior Official on (finally) joining the consensus, I can still hear his response.  “My dear girl,” he said, “we don’t have to do anything until 2020.  By then I will certainly be retired and if I keep on drinking whisky at this rate I’ll probably be dead.  I’ll sign up to anything.”  That was nearly two decades of silly-shirts ago.  A big announcement followed by a plethora of largely impotent action plans, road maps, blueprints and principles.

Trade liberalisation is a complex balancing game but, in addition to a genuine desire to open and expand the global economy, two things are vital to success: momentum; and ambition.  The WTO lacks both at the moment and is wallowing in post-Doha doldrums that have sapped the energy of even the most ambitious free trade protagonists.  Sadly, we cannot aspire to Mike Moore’s superb vision of a “World Without Walls” when key countries insist on sitting on the fence.  Whatever you call them, barriers designed to stop things moving between places achieve the same result.

TPP has been making steady progress but it’s a hard climb.  Of concern has been talk this week (and prior) of an ‘early harvest.’  One assumes this means bundling up some of the not-so-hard issues – largely the ones that few people care about – and presenting them as a “benchmark” outcome.  An achievement no less.  This is most unfair on APEC which has assiduously cornered the market as the go-to purveyor of superficial, insubstantial trade-policy moments.  TPP has to be more than this.  It was designed to be more than this.  In fact one could go so far as to say that t exists precisely because other plurilateral trade initiatives have either stalled, failed or not been comprehensive enough.

It is vital for TPP not to lose the sense of energy that is integral to acquiring policy and political outcomes.  At the highest political level – and right down the food chain – goals must continue to be set and achievements measured.  The problem with an early harvest approach is that it risks conveying the impression that something has been “agreed” when the reality of TPP is that NOTHING is achieved until everything is achieved.  We need senior negotiators working late into the night, sweating blood as they rack their minds on how to bring together disparate positions while adhering to TPP’s ambitious mandate.  Sorry climate, but more air miles will need to be racked up as ad hoc meetings are convened to bring negotiators together at short notice to crunch issues.  Lead negotiators need to be waking up in the middle of the night worrying about what needs to be done – and then emailing their colleagues to quicken the pace.  Our negotiators should be collapsing across the finish line at the end of the year utterly exhausted, confident in the knowledge that they left everything possible on the paddock and TPP is essentially done.  If bureaucrats are not getting support from their leaders then they should call them on that – and vice versa.

Assuming it’s true that the U.S. team has a political imperative to get a deal done then negotiators need to be held to account so as to address all the items on the table – not just the ones with online casino the loudest lobbyists.  And if Japan, with a leader who sounds close to visionary on trade policy at the moment, genuinely wants to join the club then let’s ensure that the tough agricultural issues aren’t parked in the corner like an alcoholic relative at a Christmas party.  

The business community could help by shaking off the apathy and cynicism that has been hanging like a shroud over trade discussions while doing everything to help governments prepare to embrace political risk.  The need for this is pressing given the ever-present anti-corporate, economically criminal nutcases who think that anyone not growing lentils on a quarter acre section while singing folk songs is a puppet of “globalisation.”

New Zealand has, for decades now, lived the free trade mantra and when you look at how (comparatively) our economy has weathered the global recession, you’d have to be a moron to think that the approach is wrong.  It’s not a partisan thing: Goff, Groser and their predecessors have all demonstrated an ability to be opportunistic – which is exactly what is needed for anyone involved in trade.  What we don’t need is an artificial and premature “gesture” that is worthless to the regional business community, derided by civil society groups who will take two seconds to see through it, and which risks giving negotiators an excuse to rest on their laurels.  Just as Sir Edmund Hillary didn’t get a headline when he got to base camp, we should hold off celebrating any TPP outcome until all the entire process can be assessed for its merits.  It’s a bit of a trek and the risks are ever present but no halfway announcement will ever have the same impact as a truly heroic result once the goal has been met.  That will be the time for a summit announcement.



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