Deploying All Of His Persuasive Powers: Andrew Little faces an enormous challenge in persuading Middle New Zealand that the very limited gains of the Trans-Pacific Partnership aren't worth the loss of control over their nation's economic future. The political winds are shifting. US Presidential contender, Hilary Clinton, has come out against the TPP, forced to change her position by the massive rejection, worldwide, of economies run not for people but for powerful business interests.
LABOUR’S STANCE on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could end up determining the outcome of the 2017 General Election. If Andrew Little aligns his party with the other parliamentary opponents of the TPP – the Greens and NZ First – then the legislation giving effect to the agreement will barely scrape through the House of Representatives. Such open and substantial parliamentary opposition will clear the way for Andrew Little to lead an anti-TPP coalition into electoral battle in 2017. If, however, Labour ends up supporting the TPP, then it will be a fractured and fractious Opposition that takes the field against John Key in two years’ time.
With Labour firmly opposed, the National-led Government’s best outcome would see the TPP’s enabling legislation passed by a margin of three votes. But if, as seems likely, the Maori Party acknowledges the rising anti-TPP sentiment within Maoridom, by either abstaining or voting against the bill, then the nearest thing to a TPP ratification process that New Zealanders are going to get will be carried by just one vote – Peter Dunne’s.
Nobody in the pro-TPP camp wants that to happen. A Parliament split down the middle (61:60) presents the public with a powerful symbol of discord, disagreement and dissent. A one-vote (or even a three vote) majority says: “This isn’t over. This matter will be decided at the ballot box.”
Such a prospect is a far cry from the cosy bipartisanship which, since the early 1980s, has characterised the free-trade debate in New Zealand. It was the Labour-leader, Bill Rowling, who, in 1982, over-ruled the doubters in his party and swung Labour’s support behind Rob Muldoon’s proposed Closer Economic Relationship Agreement (CER) with Australia. The subsequent 33 years of bipartisan unity on free trade has effectively marginalised all those individuals and groups cautious about eliminating border protections. Understandably, the restoration of bipartisanship is currently the pro-TPP camp’s No. 1 priority.
What the Right fears the most is two years of rising political temperatures and sharpened social antagonisms, during which the controversial content of the TPP supplies the Government’s opponents with all the ammunition they need to bring down the National-led coalition of right-wing political parties.
Over the next few weeks the New Zealand people should, therefore, be on the alert for two full-on political campaigns. The first will be a government-funded PR campaign designed to sell the alleged benefits of the TPP to as many Kiwis as possible. The second will involve dozens (if not scores) of journalists, businesspeople and academics doing their level best to persuade Labour to return to the bipartisan fold.
There will be those in Labour’s parliamentary caucus who will find it difficult not to echo the content of both campaigns. For the former trade minister, Phil Goff, in particular, it will be nearly impossible to take any other position. He is, after all, the man who negotiated the 2008 China/New Zealand Free Trade Agreement. Nor is he alone. The right-wing political commentator and PR maven, Matthew Hooton, has speculated that as many as half-a-dozen Labour MPs could end up crossing-the-floor to vote in favour of the TPP.
Labour should not, however, allow itself to be spooked by such scare tactics. The political winds are shifting, and the last thing Labour wants to be caught defending is the TPP. And that’s because the deal to which the Government has formally committed New Zealanders is not a trade deal in the way our FTA with the Chinese is a trade deal.
The Nobel Prize-winner for Economics, Joseph Stiglitz, has this to say about the TPP: “You will hear much about the importance of the TPP for ‘free trade’. The reality is that this is an agreement to manage its members’ trade and investment relations – and to do so on behalf of each country’s most powerful business lobbies.”
If Labour truly believes it’s going to enhance its chances of winning the 2017 election by swinging-in behind the “country’s most powerful business lobbies”, then it’s in for an unpleasant surprise. Those shifting political winds that have caused US Presidential contender, Hilary Clinton, to come out against the TPP, are driven by the massive rejection, worldwide, of economies run not for people but for powerful businesses.
With Labour, the Greens and NZ First allied against the TPP (and around what other issue could these three parties credibly campaign as a government-in-waiting?) the National Party and its allies will find themselves campaigning for an agreement which, as more and more of its detailed provisions are analysed and explained, becomes less and less defensible.
The 2017 election, if Labour, the Greens and NZ First box clever, can thus become a contest between competing visions. The TPP’s vision of an economy that’s managed for powerful business interests; and the progressive Opposition’s vision of an economy that works for people.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 October 2015.