Wednesday 24 May 2017

Will the TPP Spell National’s Doom?

"John Frum, He Come." The National Government's stubborn promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has been likened to the post-World War II Melanesian "Cargo Cults" whose followers constructed their own "runways" and "aircraft" to entice the recently departed GIs "John From America" (John Frum) to return bearing the miraculous "cargo" that had so suddenly enriched their lives.
IT WAS ONE OF THE MOST EXTREME REACTIONS to a speech that I have ever witnessed. I had written it for the newly-elected Mayor of Dunedin, Sukhi Turner, and she had made it her own. Delivering it with her trademark forthrightness, she set the Dunedin Establishment ablaze. The offending paragraph had been the one in which she accused the Dunedin business community of having a “cargo cult” mentality.
The anthropological term, “cargo cult”, arose from the responses of a number of isolated Melanesian populations whose subsistence communities had been overwhelmed during World War II: first by soldiers; then with all the things that soldiers need. When the war ended, and the soldiers and their “cargo” departed (as suddenly and mysteriously as they had arrived) the islanders were distraught. Desperate for the return of these bringers-of-all-good things, they laid out jungle runways and fashioned crude facsimiles of aircraft. “John Frum [John from America] he come”, they intoned to the heavens. “John Frum, he come.”
The point I was making in the speech, and which Sukhi embraced, was that our own local (and national) business elites were behaving very similarly to those Melanesian islanders. They also believed that if they laid out the equivalent of jungle runways (financial inducements, deregulated markets) then John Frum’s precious “cargo” – in the form of big, one-off, economy-rescuing, foreign-investment projects – would follow.
The firestorm created by the speech took a great deal of hosing down. (Unsurprisingly, I wrote no more incendiary mayoral speeches!) It did, however, teach me a couple of very valuable lessons. First. What are presented as highly sophisticated economic arguments in favour of globalisation are driven by some very unsophisticated (some might even say primal) human impulses. Second. The people advancing such arguments do not take at all kindly to being labelled cargo cultists!
That being the case, the veteran journalist, Gordon Campbell, should probably watch his back. Because, in his latest analysis of the Bill English-led National Government’s peculiar obsession with keeping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) alive, Campbell writes:
“New Zealand – and other nations – made concessions and spent their political capital in order to meet American corporate demands. The likes of English are still promising to observe these commitments to the letter, even though the Americans won’t be there to keep their side of the bargain. The TPP has literally become a cargo cult ritual that’s being performed in the hope that someday, one day, the Americans will return, bearing gifts.”
No surprise, then, that the National-led Government is so keen to enrol the Labour Party in this, to date, fruitless ritual. Labour’s return to the Free Trade fold would represent a much-needed infusion of political capital to the project. Without it, the New Zealand political class’s considerable reputational investment in TPP stands to be lost.
Exactly why Labour would offer its company to all this pro-TPP misery is far from clear. Such an about-face would not only alienate its prospective coalition partners in the Greens (whose opposition to the TPP remains staunch) but also enrage the September election’s likely arbiter, Winston Peters – whose adamant opposition to such agreements is well known on both sides of the parliamentary aisle.
Accordingly, by far the most fruitful course of action for Labour would be to make common-cause with the Greens and NZ First against any and all attempts to revive the TPP in its current, unamended, form.
Such an alliance would constitute a stern warning to the political class that its participation in such absurd cargo cult rituals must end. It would also signal that the days of electoral politics being a “heads we win, tails you lose” proposition for New Zealand’s “permanent interests” are over.
The National Party (which certainly likes to think of itself as the spokesperson for those permanent interests) should recall the fury of the tangata whenua at the sovereignty-threatening clauses of the TPP – especially the Investor-State Dispute Settlement provisions. Is its relationship with the Maori Party strong enough to withstand such a test of loyalties?
The three (possibly four) parties currently positioned to bring National’s nine-year-reign to an end could hardly have wished for a better issue around which to gather the forces seeking a change of government. It offers the Left a rare opportunity to bestow upon its parliamentary representatives the benediction of mass political action: the chance to allow Labour, the Greens and NZ First to be carried all the way to the Beehive’s Ninth Floor on a vast wave of popular discontent.
All of which poses the question: Why would English and his allies (both inside and outside of Parliament) willingly hang the weighty carcass of the deeply unpopular TPP around their collective neck? Do they really intend their final words, as the rising tide of change closes over their heads, to be: “John Frum, he come”?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 23 May 2017.


Unknown said...

Chris, do you think that the vast majority of the voting public dont actually care about the TPP? Isnt a bit like in the last election, the left thought that the moment of truth would dramatically sway the election because supposedly all New zealanders were upset about spying? All the left got over excited about the protests in auckland about the TPP but then didnt comment that on the day before there was a far bigger crowd that paid to go the cricket at Eden Park!

Nick J said...

I don't do conspiracy theory but my follow the money suspicions make me wonder what goes on? I suspect that they are and that these people are incorrigibly aligned. If this is a cancer how do we proceed?

Trump says no to TPPA, but the rest carry on and sign. So are these signatories lining themselves up for the US to join post Trump? Are our politicians and diplomats and defense establishment so deeply entrenched with multi-national corporations and the neocons?

Brendon Harre said...

The original British free trade movement -repealing the Corn Laws in the 1840s was a project that benefited both the new city based industrialists and the workers. I wrote about it here

The TPPA is a project where the benefits of trade go to the corporates. The TPPA will not reduce the social and economic malaise where the middle and lower classes are becoming less respectful of societies institutions because they are seen as tools for the elite not for ordinary people.

We should let the TPPA die and concentrate our energies on structural reforms to help the lower and middle classes lot.

Kiwiwit said...

It is more than a little disingenuous to paint the TPP as a National Party-led cargo cult and to say that Labour supporting it would be an 'about face' when it was Helen Clark's Labour Government that signed the TPSEP that became the TPP. You also seem to forget that it was David Lange's Labour Government that dismantled our highly protectionist, 'Polish shipyard' economy that predominantly National-led governments had built up since WW2.

I also can't understand why the left-wing who oppose TPP aren't lauding Donald Trump for dumping it.

How economic nationalism can be good for a country that depends on external trade for a greater proportion of its GDP than almost any other on Earth, is beyond me.

greywarbler said...

First thought, great image. Glad that you somehow found this I imagine, rare picture.

greywarbler said...

Richard Swan
If everyone does what everyone else seems to think, then nothing different is ever thought of, and when disaster strikes of course nobody will take any responsibility. 'Well I didn't see that coming. Yes isn't it awful! What can we do? We will have to practice triage. Sorry about that mate you didn't make the cut.' Roughly how it is likely to go along the pathway - from one back to zero.

There is nobility in trying to use our higher human intelligence to think for ourselves and not be swayed by the fact that others are too dulled to look for a range of perspectives. That is how many Jews escaped from the Nazis before WW2, they could see that bad things lay ahead and found a way to save themselves. We just haven't caught up with the reality of man's inhumanity to man which will be unleashed on us all. Half-asleep citizens contented or dispirited can't be left to decide on which actions are appropriate for our future.

The Veteran said...

I continue to be amazed by the drivel spouted by the left side of the political divide who haven't the whit nor intelligence to realize that New Zealand lives and dies by trading with the world.

Protectionists of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your income.

Wayne Mapp said...

I can't conceive of the circumstances which would cause the revival of TPP to lead to a vast wave of discontent in the coming election.

The issue is way too marginal to the election, which has already settled on general economic management, housing, immigration and water quality. Four issues is quite enough.

I am sure people (some, not all) will have noticed TPP, Japan and NZ, but frankly it is just wallpaper in the overall scheme of things. On the periphery, and not important for this election.

Kat said...

"John Key, he more TPP"

Victor said...

Nick J

You don't need to posit conspiracies to suspect that English (and probably Abe) are keeping the TPPA warm with a view to a post-Trump America joining the grouping.

Of course, if US-led corporations can have all the benefits of TPPA membership without the US signing on the dotted line, there will be no sound economic reason why Washington should in fact sign up. But it might do so at some point in the future on the basis of non-economic motives, such as counter-acting Chinese influence in the region.

Be that as it may, I suspect that, ultimately, Chris is right. The NZ government is not primarily motivated by rational considerations (conspiratorial of otherwise) of the nation's interests on this issue but by a cult-like, irrational desire to abase itself before the totems of the current economic order.

I find that a lot of neo-liberalism is like that. It's a creed, replete with icons, liturgical formulae and a calendar of festivals (e.g. Davos)that give meaning to the lives of believers.

Personally, I'd welcome a further freeing up of trade in the Pacific region if that's what the TPPA was really about. But it isn't.

Could it be made into a genuine free trade agreement? Probably not, if you want any major players on board (and not just the US).

Polly said...

If it does become an issue in our election, betcha that Little and labour will have "a bob each way".

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"I continue to be amazed by the drivel spouted by the left side of the political divide who haven't the whit (sic) nor intelligence to realize that New Zealand lives and dies by trading with the world."
If you are going to be dismissive of other people's intellect, you really should learn how to spell. It's about the only circumstance where I would point this out, but...... sauce for the goose?

David Stone said...

" Personally, I'd welcome a further freeing up of trade in the Pacific region if that's what the TPPA was really about. But it isn't"
Absolutely Victor. The comments here criticising the "left" for being anti trade because they oppose the TPPA can't have paid much attention to the guts of the agreement. It is anything but "free trade" that's the problem with it, it is hundreds of pages of rules defining the unrelated undertakings that must be agreed to to be allowed to trade. The "free trade" label attached to it is simply deliberately misleading advertising. Anyone sincerely interested in free trade could not accept it.
Cheers D J S

pat said...

Thanks for reminding me of a phrase (and its origins) I haven't heard for nigh on 30 to its most recent manifestation ,TPPA...
"Accordingly, by far the most fruitful course of action for Labour would be to make common-cause with the Greens and NZ First against any and all attempts to revive the TPP in its current, unamended, form."

...sadly Labour have shown no sign of opposing this agreement wholesale and appear unlikely to do so ....and the argument it was originally a Labour construct doesn't wash when the the devil is in the detail and that detail was all negotiated by the current (incompetent) National admin.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"I find that a lot of neo-liberalism is like that. It's a creed, replete with icons, liturgical formulae and a calendar of festivals "

Hence their worship of austerity, when it's finally been discovered it doesn't work. I think it's more a cult than a religion to be honest, even though the charismatic leaders are regularly replaced – and some aren't that charismatic. :)

Galeandra said...

Agreed, Victor. Much of the below the line commentary is tired left bashing. Wider trade is possible without predatory corporatism being allowed to entirely slip its leash.

Anonymous said...

What do Chinese net users think of the white left?
If a Chinese net user wants to insult their opponent they are likely to use the derogatory term baizuo which means "white left." What do they mean by this?

According to one source:
baizuo is used generally to describe those who “only care about topics such as immigration, minorities, LGBT and the environment” and “have no sense of real problems in the real world”; they are hypocritical humanitarians who advocate for peace and equality only to “satisfy their own feeling of moral superiority”; they are “obsessed with political correctness” to the extent that they “tolerate backwards Islamic values for the sake of multiculturalism”; they believe in the welfare state that “benefits only the idle and the free riders”; they are the “ignorant and arrogant westerners” who “pity the rest of the world and think they are saviours”.

Scurrilous and quite wrong of course

Nick J said...

The Veteran, drivel? Trade is an activity we will partake of, the issue is not whether we trasde but on what terms. This is transactional, read the fine print in the contract territory. If you want to sell some milk to another country, sell the milk, I will pay taxes to support the infrastructure you use and will benefit somehow. But dont go doing it by selling off my share of sovereignty, adding any penalties for that to my share of the tax bill when a corporation sues us.

If you really get down to it this whole thing is another case of those who have doing business at the expense of the rest of us. It is akin to polluting a river and expecting the rest of us to pick up the bill. Privatizing the profits and socializing the costs.

Nick J said...

Victor, on the button with free trade not being what the TPPA is all about. Fair trade is reciprocal benefit, most people mistake that for "free trade".

As an aside I was listening to Jordan B Peterson talking about the void left in a post religious world that opens the way for "isms" to taker hold of the base psyche of people. He is not a religious man, rather a clinical psychologist. He regards "isms" as parasites that destroy the fundamental relationships (built up over millenia of "religion") between people that no longer understand the deep requirements for common codes of conduct, agreed fairness unstated but real. Seems to fit all the "isms" such as dogmatic socialism, neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism. All very unhealthy. Trade too!

Unknown said...

The (NZ) world is too complex. It is no longer farmers versus red fed's: it is globalists versus nationalists (Hobbiton versus Mordor) but (as usual) the people haven't got a clue. The people are like Truman in the Truman show. If they ever find the door it will be too late. The Chinese see the problem because the white-left are the other.
Once the left thought they could command and control an economy (USSR), now they think they can control the whole of human society?

greywarbler said...

"John Key, he more TPP" Hee hee. Finished it for you. But without their chief salesman, Gnashional 'labour' to emulate his success in pushing their tainted projects. There is a bit of doubt growing about their scorched earth policy for the country.

Will they be able to budge-it? We will find out this afternoon and over the next few moths (whoops I mean months, but I'll leave it - there are bound to be holes). So watch this space eh, there will be much to think about and discuss.

Victor said...

Nick J

Back in the immediate post-war years, the English philosopher and (conservative) political theorist, Michael Oakeshott, wrote extensively on how nationalism, socialism, liberalism and, indeed, conservatism were all "abridgements of experience", designed as substitutes for an apprenticeship in just simply running the joint, according to a traditional, socially inculcated pattern.

As I recall it, Oakeshott saw these abridgements as flourishing particularly during periods of social change, as one ruling class replaces another and searches for a formula for government and an understanding of its role. By their nature, such theories are holistic and all embracing (hence, perhaps, the iconography and quasi-religious rituals).

There's much in Oakeshott that I rather like. But he never subjected his pal, Hayek, to the stringent analysis that he applied to others. Oakeshott's essay on Hayek, entitled, from memory, "The Political Economy of Freedom", is actually a pure example of what we now call "neo-liberalism". But, then, I've never yet read a philosopher who doesn't become an ideologist when politics impose themselves.

Tiger Mountain said...

until the NZ Labour Party (in office) breaks the neo liberal consensus they are not going to make much progress, the Reserve Bank Act, SOEs and the free in and outflow of capital all need urgent attention

leading up to the original TPP signing in Auck in 2016, Labour was at best equivocal, they need to close the lid on this “Corporate pirates charter” once and for all

greywarbler said...

The grave of the Unknown warrior!
Another poor Unknown person has succumbed to the complexities of modern politics and in desperation uttered an opinion as a form of counselling.
I suggest a sit down, and a cup of tea while your poor brain gets a rest and stops spinning, otherwise it'll be sieze-yer and make you do cold calling phone calls.

What you wrote makes perfect sense if you acknowledge that it only covers half the problem. I'll illustrate by presenting the other half.

Once the right/(left) thought they could command and control an economy USA/(USSR), now they think they can control the whole of human society?

You will feel better from seeing the undeniable truth is the same depending which direction you view from. It is just a political trick and when you understand it you will be, if not amused, certainly able to laugh ironically and regretfully.

Victor said...


"Hence their worship of austerity, when it's finally been discovered it doesn't work"


And those who offend against it must be cast into the outer darkness.

fegimon said...

Unfortunately, the voting public will find all this TPP stuff too abstract. Some trade agreement that will compromise our sovereignty 10 years down the track from ratification to full implementation does not capture the imagination. Manufactured truths from the proponents will likely prevail and when things turn askew many years down the track, the voting public will probably get angry but by then, it will be too little too late. This issue will barely register on the public consciousness during the election. National has delivered an 'excellent' budget that will appeal to middle NZ and baring some monumental controversy, we will have a fourth term National government yet again - sigh ...

Victor said...


I'm not a huge fan of Jeremy Corbyn. But he states an elementary truth when he says that austerity "has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door".

I suspect the you and I can think of numerous other places where it ought to stop. And any sensible, practical person would agree with us, if it weren't for the anathemas invoked by neo-liberal dogmatists.

peteswriteplace said...

No TPP Labour!

vol said...

Two channels in NZ politics, mortgages and ideas. The former too close to the earth, the latter, too not.

David Stone said...

G S and Victor
I don't recall austerity ever being any part of neoliberal dogma before 2008. It was adopted after the crash to fund the rescue the world's financial system, i.e. the banks, and to try to rescue the ideology. Last night I watched an interview with Varoufakis in which he states that every bank in the world would have failed then were it not for the Q E replacing the unpayable debts.
Effectively that means the private citizens have to shoulder this debt so that the banks can carry on issuing trillions more dollars of loans that will also soon show themselves to be unpayable. Austerity is the mechanism imposed in order to extract payment from us to service and repay that debt. ( To the banks for god's sake).
I think an aspect of the present pass that seems be almost ignored in discussion is the role of Allan Greenspan . It was not my understanding that the banks would be included in the Laissez Faire capitalist system when neoliberalism first arrived, but of corse they wanted to be included ,as if they were just another business in a neoliberal world. But they are not. And when the Glass Steagall act was abolished in the US and banks had no restrictions on how much debt they could issue, they were thrown into competition to issue more and more debt cf depots and capital , or lose market share to more adventurous competitors. For each individual bank it was a choice of lending more and more on less and less security ,massively inflating real estate, the share market, and derivatives (but not so much the everyday supermarket items) or be squeezed out of the market and close their doors. So the die was set.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

David. On the contrary, austerity – under the label rationalisation – was the dogma of the World Bank long before 2008. It was imposed on developing countries mostly though in order to fit them into a world economy where they produce cheap raw materials for the transnational corporations to turn into finished products to send back to them.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

And as I said. Conservatives have a PC all their own.

Victor said...


"I don't recall austerity ever being any part of neoliberal dogma before 2008."

Really? Margaret Thatcher made it firmly part of her approach, as I well recall from my latter years in the UK.

I would agree, though, that Reganomics involved playing fast and loose with the bottom line in a most un-austere way, albeit that the object of the exercise was tax relief for the rich and certainly not the maintenance of benefits for the poor.

As to the 'Third Way' crowd, Clinton, justifiably, hyped his administration's tight wad tendencies, although I'd agree that Blair and Brown were relatively big spenders, within a broadly neo-liberal paradigm.

And here in New Zealand, we've had more or less constant austerity since the 1980s, albeit that Clark/Cullen may have loosened the noose considerably, had they still been in office during the worst of the GFC and that Key, to his credit, held off from the extremes of austerity urged by some of his supporters.

Surely the whole point of neo-liberalism (like dear old "classical liberalism" before it) has been to roll back the boundaries of the state, by, amongst other things, cutting out what's perceived as "waste". And surely that's what it's kept on doing, throughout the Anglosphere and elsewhere, for these last thirty plus years.

As to the bank bail-outs, I'm not sure what the alternative was once the crisis was upon us. BTW I think I've seen the Varoufakis interview and it's excellent.

However, I also agree with Joe Stiglitz and others that there were many other things that governments could have done in addition to QE, e.g. providing low-interest (or even free) loans to home-owners threatened with foreclosure. And, clearly, bailouts should have been accompanied by firm measures to bring the banks within the public purlieu.

And, yes, you're right, Allan Greenspan has a lot to answer for.