Crucial Intervention: Helen Clark's highly controversial endorsement of the TPPA struck the anti-TPPA movement like a torpedo amidships and left it dead in the water. It is now rumoured that another former Labour PM, Mike Moore, will lend his not inconsiderable advocacy skills to the promotion of the TPPA
ANDREW LITTLE has failed to make Labour’s response to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) a “leadership issue”. It’s a failure that threatens not only Mr Little’s credibility, but also that of the Labour Party itself. As matters relating to the TPPA unfold over the next few weeks, it will become increasingly clear that much more is at stake here than a trade agreement.
In part, Labour’s stance on the TPPA has become a matter of protecting legacies. Labour’s embrace of free markets in the mid-1980s necessarily embraced the dogma of free trade. The 1999-2008 Labour Government’s success in negotiating the China-NZ Free Trade Agreement (China’s first with a recognisably “Western” government) is held up as its most important achievement. Certainly, Helen Clark regards the China-NZ agreement as the jewel in the crown of her political legacy.
Just how important Labour’s free trade stance is to Ms Clark became clear on 1 October 2015, in New York, when she stood alongside the National Prime Minister, John Key, and joined him in singing the praises of the TPPA. This endorsement by Ms Clark struck the anti-TPPA movement like a torpedo amidships, leaving it dead in the water.
Few New Zealanders grasped the significance of Ms Clark’s intervention. As a senior United Nations’ official, she is bound by the strictest protocols from intervening in the slightest way in the domestic politics of a member state. That she was willing to run the risk of being accused of breaching that protocol speaks volumes about how much personal and political capital she has invested in Labour’s continued adherence to free trade policies.
If Ms Clark fails in her attempt to become the United Nation’s first woman Secretary General, her intervention in New Zealand’s domestic TPPA debate may well turn out to be one of the deciding factors.
It is possible that Ms Clark may not be the only former Labour Prime Minister to enter into the TPPA debate. Rumours are rife that Mike Moore – indisputably New Zealand’s most fervent free-trade champion – is intending, his health permitting, to stump the country in favour of the TPPA. If the rumours prove to be true, then the anti-TPPA campaigners will be faced with a doughty opponent: Mr Moore’s promotional skills are legendary.
Ms Clark’s and Mr Moore’s determination to uphold Labour’s free-trade legacy will find ready allies in Labour’s parliamentary caucus. Phil Goff was this country’s leading FTA negotiator with the Chinese and he will not abandon his legacy without a fight. At his side he will likely count Annette King, Trevor Mallard, Clayton Cosgrove and David Shearer. These are not the sort of politicians a Labour leader alienates without consequences – just ask David Cunliffe!
It should be clear, from the above, that even if Mr Little does harbour doubts about the wisdom of supporting the TPPA (and that is by no means certain) he faces some pretty daunting obstacles when it comes to expressing them. He and his team of advisers have made a political fetish out of presenting a unified team to the electorate. An open and, in all likelihood, vituperative debate about the merits of opposing the TPPA runs the risk of reopening a multitude of old wounds. If disunity is death, then courting disunity must surely be political suicide?
On the other side of the debate stand those within the Labour caucus and throughout the wider party who regard the TPPA as something much more sinister than a simple trade agreement. In particular, the Investor/State Dispute Settlement Process (ISDP) contained in the agreement is seen by many New Zealanders as a mechanism for preventing the TPPA signatories from introducing economic and social measures inimical to the interests of the large, transnational corporations the TPPA appears to have been set up to serve. Not to put too fine a point upon it: the purpose of ISDP is to prevent Labour-type political parties from ever again behaving like Labour-type political parties.
The compromise position Mr Little has thrashed out with his colleagues is to reassure the electorate that a Labour-led government would “defy” the TPPA by passing legislation strictly regulating the circumstances in which New Zealand land may be sold to foreigners. Quite why the caucus has agreed to this we can only speculate, especially when a TPPA exemption to the same effect (which Australia, Malaysia and Singapore have already secured) is, apparently, ours for the asking.
The faux radicalism offered up by Mr Little and his colleagues on the question of foreign ownership in no way addresses the profound issues arising out of the TPPA’s imminent ratification – nor is it likely to appease Labour’s critics.
At the site of an earlier rebel army’s defeat, Mao Zedong told his faltering troops to: “Fear no ghosts! The past does not return!”
Andrew Little should do the same.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 12 January 2016.