Brave Faces At Danang: David Parker and Jacinda Ardern field questions from the news media at the meeting of Apec in Danang, Vietnam. What the new Labour-led government needed more than anything else from this meeting was what they came home with - Time.
THE TRANS-PACIFIC PARTNERSHIP (TPP) is not dead, but neither can it be said to be in the rudest of health. Considerable last-minute diplomatic scurrying was required to save the Japanese government from a humiliating loss of face. Negotiations, accordingly, are said to be “continuing”. Nothing, however, should be expected before February 2018 – at the earliest. Which means that, for the moment at least, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Trade Minister David Parker, like Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, have taken possession of the commodity they most needed to bring home from Danang – Time.
The situation into which Ardern was flying aboard the RNZAF’s Boeing 757 at the end of last week offered no guarantee that such precious time would be on offer. Danang was fraught with multiple dangers: economic, diplomatic and political.
As the leader of a small trading nation, New Zealand’s prime minister simply cannot affect a take-it-or-leave-it attitude to something as big as the TPP. The inescapable truth confronting Ardern (as it has every one of her predecessors) is that this country’s status as a first-world nation is inescapably contingent upon earning sufficient overseas currency to import the sort of lifestyle to which most Kiwis believe themselves entitled. Bluntly: faced with the choice of announcing whether her government is “in” or “out” of a major trade agreement; no New Zealand prime minister can say “out” with impunity.
All of the official advice the Prime Minister has received to date on the TPP will have kicked-off from that position. Certainly, it will have been the argument reiterated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). It will also have been the lustily repeated refrain of this country’s major exporters. Likewise, from what might be called the “globalisation lobby” imbedded in NGO-land, academia and the media.
Taken together, a very large and intimidating crowd to say “no” to!
Even larger and much more intimidating, however, are the nation states determined to see the TPP (or, as it has rather tendentiously been re-named, the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership – CPTPP!) ratified and implemented. The agreement’s principal cheerleader (now that the USA has withdrawn) is Japan, whose diplomatic reach proved to be more than long enough to secure Justin Trudeau’s return to the negotiating table. (It may have been Canada’s wish to walk away from the TPP-11 altogether, but Japan’s “arguments” were clearly “persuasive” enough to cause its prime minister to have second-thoughts and turn around!)
If Canada, with 36.3 million people and the second-largest economy of the remaining TPP signatories, couldn’t make it all the way to the departure lounge at Danang, then what were the odds of little New Zealand making it even as far as the door? New Zealand political leaders have only to review their country’s diplomatic, military and economic experience with the USA between 1984 and 2010 to gain some appreciation of the costs associated with taking a “principled stand”. World headlines last only a few days – their consequences can last for decades.
And then, of course, you have to come home.
It is probable that the National Party was hoping more earnestly than Professor Jane Kelsey and the entire New Zealand Left that Prime Minister Ardern would take a “principled stand” on the TPP. Had she stood up and said “no”, not only would she have felt the full wrath of Japan and its allies, but, from the moment her feet once again touched New Zealand soil, she would also have felt the full blast of a searing political firestorm.
The Urgent Debate in Parliament, which Speaker Mallard would have no choice but to grant the National Opposition, would only be the beginning. Day after day, the voices of exporters, business leaders, bank economists, business journalists, media commentators, academic experts and the globalisation lobby would be ringing in the Labour-NZ First-Green Government’s ears.
The Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues would then have just two political options: either back-down, or double-down.
If they backed-down, then Ms Ardern and her government would stand exposed as a bunch of juvenile attention-seekers who simply had not thought through the consequences of their irresponsible actions. It would be a full-scale debacle from which they could not recover.
But, doubling-down would be even worse. By adopting a sharp-edged, radically left-wing, stance on international trade at both the diplomatic and domestic levels, Ms Ardern’s government would rapidly find itself re-positioned among the world’s “nutty” nation states. Inevitably, New Zealand would find itself drifting, economically and diplomatically, under the influence of China and Russia. For an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders, this would represent an unmandated repudiation of everything their country stands for. Politically, it would be unsurvivable.
To Ms Ardern’s and Mr Parkers’ no doubt immense relief, both of these catastrophes have been avoided. They have had a very lucky escape.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 14 November 2017.