Adding Perspective: New Zealand's Trade Minister, Tim Groser, interjects during the Atlanta media conference announcing the settlement of the Trans-Pacific Partnership: “Look, long after the details of this negotiation on things like tons of butter have been regarded as a footnote in history, the bigger picture of what we’ve achieved today will be what remains.”
ON THE DAY the deal was done, Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics, had this to say about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (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. Make no mistake: It is evident from the main outstanding issues, over which the negotiators are still haggling, that the TPP is not about free trade.”
Certainly a genuine free trade agreement would have offered New Zealand much more than the TPP. Rather than trying to work up some enthusiasm for a deal that offers staggered tariff reductions over decades, a genuine free trade agreement would have had New Zealanders celebrating their farmers’ full and immediate access to the vast markets of the USA and Japan.
Tim Groser, New Zealand’s acerbic Trade Minister, would dismiss such expectations as wholly inappropriate to what he calls the world of power politics. At the media conference marking the negotiations’ successful conclusion, Mr Groser summed-up his view of the TPP with the following interjection:
“Look, long after the details of this negotiation on things like tons of butter have been regarded as a footnote in history, the bigger picture of what we’ve achieved today will be what remains.”
By which he meant, presumably, that the TPP represents much more than the sum of its thirty (still secret) chapters: that it is in and of itself a positive contribution to the welfare of the human species.
And yet, on the basis of what little information has so far been released about the TPP, this is a difficult argument to stand up. What, for example, is positive about the extension of copyright from 50 to 70 years? Or the ability of powerful pharmaceutical companies to extend the life of their patents for an additional three years? Far from freeing-up the commerce of the Pacific Rim, these measures will only restrict it further. Since when was free trade about increasing the monopoly power of huge corporations?
“Since forever!”, Noam Chomsky would, waspishly, reply. According to the dissident professor from MIT: “Globalisation [of which the TPP is a classic manifestation] is the result of powerful governments, especially that of the United States, pushing trade deals and other accords down the throats of the world’s people to make it easier for corporations and the wealthy to dominate the economies of nations around the world without having obligations to the peoples of those nations.”
If this is, indeed, the “bigger picture” to which the efforts of our Trade Minister and his negotiating team have contributed, then the people of New Zealand could be in trouble.
Under the provisions of the TPP, the New Zealand tradition of coming up with creative collective solutions to specific social problems (ACC and Pharmac spring to mind) will no longer be permissible. Henceforth, “solutions” will be the exclusive purview of big (i.e. foreign) corporations. Massive financial compensation will be extracted from any government foolhardy enough to put itself between these corporate predators and their prey. Adjudicated by tribunals composed of three carefully vetted corporate lawyers, “Investor State Dispute Settlement” (ISDS) referrals now constitute a clear and present danger to the sovereignty of all but the most powerful nation states.
In the words of Professor Andrew Geddis of the University of Otago, if New Zealand signs up to the TPP “we are going to change how our country is run into something else.”
That “something else” may turn out to be a big deal, says Professor Geddis, or it may not. But why put our constitution at risk in the first place? Do we really want to “find ourselves reasonably frequently hanging on the decision of three private individuals who are deciding if we are allowed to have a policy in place without having to pay many millions of dollars to an overseas company.”
Very little in the Trade Minister’s “bigger picture”, it seems, is “free”. Nor does “trade” constitute the TPP’s dominant theme. Rather, Mr Groser’s “achievement” is mostly about the application of constant and irresistible pressure to force open the markets of weaker economies to the investors of the stronger.
“Managed” trade, indeed – but not by us.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 9 October 2015.