Scold Mode: “We need adults to do this, not breathless children to run off at the mouth when the deal is not actually finished.” Trade Minister, Tim Groser, makes clear his disdain for the TPPA's opponents.
TIM GROSER is not known for saying silly things. In fact, he is one of that fast-dwindling number of public figures who still possesses sufficient faith in his own intellect to insist upon writing his own speeches. It was, therefore, rather shocking to hear him dismiss the organised opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) as “irrelevant”.
As a former Marxist, Mr Groser should be under no illusions about the power of radical ideas to shape the discourse of whole epochs of human history. The Pope may have dismissed Martin Luther’s 1517 protests as “irrelevant” – but that did not make them so. Indeed, the “protestant” church is named after them. Nor is it wise to confuse the strength of a protest with the number of people making it. It was Rosa Parks, alone, who refused to give up her seat on that Montgomery Bus back in 1955, but her protest against the injustices of the Jim Crow South touched off an explosion of change.
Without Professor Jane Kelsey’s patient amassing of evidence critical of the TPPA, the current upwelling of concern about its likely consequences for New Zealand and New Zealanders would have been much smaller, and considerably less well-informed. As one of the very few Kiwi academics to take seriously the universities’ statutory duty to act as the “critic and conscience” of society, Professor Kelsey has acted as a virtual one-person think-tank, testing the claims of the free-trade crusaders – often to destruction.
With Mr Groser arriving home empty-handed from Hawaii, and the next round of TPPA negotiations several weeks away (at least!) how exciting it would be if, in the interim, the Trade Minister and Professor Kelsey could be prevailed upon to participate in a public debate on the pros and cons of persisting with the TPPA. Outside of election campaigns, it’s been many years since a major public debate of this sort has been attempted. If our free-to-air television networks cannot be persuaded to screen the event pro bono, it could, at the very least, be live-streamed on the Internet.
A metropolitan town hall packed to the rafters, with tens-of-thousands more following the action on television or the Internet, would, of course, instantly render the opposition to the TPPA extremely relevant. For this reason, alone, Mr Groser and his boss, the Prime Minister, would likely be loath to participate. Merely by appearing on the same stage as Professor Kelsey, the Trade Minister would be acknowledging her as his equal. Given Mr Groser’s recent statement that: “We need adults to do this, not breathless children to run off at the mouth when the deal is not actually finished.” Such an acknowledgement seems … unlikely.
Which is a very sad reflection on the state of political affairs in New Zealand. Our leaders celebrate this country’s democratic credentials at every opportunity. Indeed, our historical predilection for “punching above our weight” on foreign policy issues was put forward as one of the best reasons for seating New Zealand at the UN Security Council table. The truth, however, is that it’s been quite a while since we Kiwis did any such thing. For most of the last 30 years, top-down has, rather forcefully, replaced bottom-up.
Demanding a major public debate on whether or not to persist with the TPPA would, therefore, be a fine first step towards re-learning the knack of making politicians dance only to the tunes composed by “We, the People” – the voters who elected them. After 30 years of distributing those high-pitched corporate song-sheets, the politicians have, surely, had their turn?
Not according to Mr Groser. The Trade Minister is adamant that the negotiation of trade agreements is a matter for the people who know what they are doing – not the people per se.
It’s a view deeply entrenched in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) whose senior officials are absolutely convinced that the ministry’s remit can only be delivered by the sort of elite specialists they have, decade after decade, made it their business to recruit and retain. Mr Groser was, himself, one of their brightest stars. Imagine the celebrations when John Key awarded him the Trade portfolio. Finally, MFAT’s long-term plan for luring the United States into a state-of-the-art, New Zealand-designed, free trade agreement, had a champion worthy of its ambition.
Breathless Children: 1 WTO's Millennium Round: 0 - The Battle For Seattle, 1999.
And he’ll be damned if he’s going to let the likes of Jane Kelsey and her “breathless children” muck it up. But surely, Mr Groser, you haven’t forgotten the events of 1999 in Seattle, when tens-of-thousands of “breathless children”, braved the riot squads’ rubber bullets and pepper spray to derail the World Trade Organisation’s (still uncompleted) Millennium Round? This world contains more than politicians, diplomats and business-people. Failure to acknowledge the all-too-relevant concerns of ordinary Kiwis will only end in the irrelevancy of Mr Groser.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 4 August 2015.