Saturday, February 6, 2016

On the public's enemies: the Labour Party and TPP protesters

When we look to a change in government, we might look to Labour. They are currently the major party of the opposition and despite their less than impressive polling numbers, the next left wing government will most likely be led by them. Last month's shenanigans from certain MPs on the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) left many of us fairly disappointed. However, given Labour’s history with free trade agreements (FTAs) and their position on FTAs generally, I am not surprised that some their more conservative MPs like Phil Goff feel they have to break away from the party position and support the TPP. David Shearer’s position is somewhat more curious; Phil Goff is running to be mayor of Auckland but it is not clear if Shearer’s position is formed by conversations with his constituents or if it's just a personal opinion. 

There is a possibility that the TPP would have looked different if negotiated under a Labour government. That is extremely speculative given Mike Moore (ex-Labour Prime Minister) has been NZ Ambassador to the US for much of the time this was negotiated. So the question remains – is the Labour opposition to TPP an opposition to National only? Or is it true opposition to the actual TPP agreement? Because if they are opposing the TPP just to oppose National, then it makes sense that that position is a lot harder for many MPs to swallow.

If this is a question about wider discipline issues in the caucus, how would we react if the party had decided to support the TPP and some MPs broke ranks to oppose? Would we be more forgiving? Arguably, a collective party position is more favourable within the MMP context rather than individual positions on major policy matters similar to what we see in the US Congress. The rampant individualism in the House and Senate is tiring, counter-productive, and leads to unstable policies. Individual positions on conscience issues is understandable – although even that sometimes seems odd because what constitutes conscience is very arbitrary. From an electoral perspective, a party position is very important because it is the party vote that ultimately determines the make-up of Parliament. The factional and often confusing position on the TPP by Labour MPs is ultimately a disservice to the public. Labour’s official line at this point seems to be that they will oppose but will accept it once it goes through Parliament. Given that National has the numbers to pass the related legislation, their 'opposition' is not material. What is needed is a clear set of reasons why this is a bad deal and those reasons need to be reiterated enthusiastically and constantly by every MP. So that the public can be informed.

Why does Labour need to inform the public? 

Auckland TPP Protest,
photo via Mohammed Hassan on Twitter
Today, there is a column about the protesters and how they didn’t really know what they were protesting. Heather du Plessis-Allen seems annoyed that protesters disrupted traffic and finds the democratic right to protest "infuriating". As Luke Tipoki pointed out on twitter in this thread – when the Springbok Tour was being protested, did the tactics distract from the issue or raise awareness? Are more people in New Zealand suddenly wondering what the TPP is really about after this weekend? If TPP protestors don’t know much about the TPP – whose fault is it and why isn’t that a red flag for our democracy and our democratic processes?

Auckland TPP Protest
Photo via Will Taylor
 Iris Riddell on Twitter
A major trade agreement has been signed and most people don’t know anything about it because it was negotiated and agreed to in secret with very little consultation with the public. This should be concerning. Obviously the details of negotiations are secret but changes to major policy direction should have had public input. In a healthy democracy, we should have had a public debate on the pros and cons of the broad policy changes in in areas like healthcare, intellectual property, and agriculture. There has been so no sit down in-depth interview with John Key or Tim Groser where a trade/economy/finance reporter has grilled them on the finer aspect of the agreement. They have no problems putting protesters on the spot but they have yet to put our Prime Minister and our Minister of Trade in a primetime slot where they answers the questions on why we should embrace this agreement. The protesters on the other hand are folks who have not been consulted with, who didn’t get to see the deal until after it was agreed to, and who are not trade expert. This imbalance of power is not acknowledged or taken into account in the reporting.

When the Prime Minister dismisses protesters as "rent-a-mob", the media faithfully publishes his allegations without any investigation into if this is actually a practice. Is every single person here "rented"? How much are they paying these protesters? Who exactly is bankrolling this? Or do they have a legitimate grievance in that they do not know anything about this trade agreement and therefore, cannot support something they do not know anything about. That they would prefer the government to wait until they do is not a hard ask. Again, it is a preposterous allegation to suggest that these people are rented but the Prime Minister's allegations seldom are challenged. Where the media should be holding the government (those in power) to account, they seem more inclined to hold the opposition (slightly less powerful) and the public (basically powerless) to account. The contempt showed towards protesters is surprising. We accept when the Prime Minister says he doesn't have the information on hand and therefore cannot answer a technical question but we are punish the general public if they do not know the intricacies of a major trade agreement. 

By all accounts, the gains from the TPP are miniscule even from MFAT's own analysis. The effect on healthcare, particularly drug prices is yet to be seen but a  number of healthcare and doctors organizations already oppose the TPP, which definitely casts a dark shadow on the legitimacy of the benefits. Protection of the Treaty of Waitangi is considered weak by legal experts. Consultation with Maori have been non-existent. In fact, John Key basically blatantly lied to the media about consultation and faced no consequences as a result. Consultation after finalizing a deal is not good faith consultation by any account. Yet, while protesters get denigrated in newspaper columns and on tv, the PM essentially lies about consultation, refuses to front up to Maori, and blames the public for being ignorant about a secret deal and there are no consequences for him. The cognitive dissonance from all parties is fairly astounding. 

MFAT has taken to justifying this agreement by saying: 
"Beyond the economic modelling, we know that free trade agreements help New Zealand exporters, because they have told us so."
Instead of doing independent analysis which is what we would expect a neutral government department to do, they are relying on businesses to direct this trade agreement which is a matter of public policy. Interestingly, they also say: 
"A recently released study estimates that gains for New Zealand from a free trade agreement with the current 11 TPP economies could be as high as 1.4 percent of our gross domestic product, or US$2.9 billion."
This is new. When the TPP was initially signed, MFAT said gains would be 0.9% and even the 1.4% is not definitive. But, that has mysteriously disappeared from their website, only a screenshot was captured: 

Source: MFAT website August 2, 2015. This no longer exists on their website. 

The current laughable rationale is that somehow the Labour Party and protesters are our enemies because they don't have a consistent position or they are ignorant. It will be years before it is fully implemented and any harm will be incremental. It will be even slower than death by a thousand cuts. Unfortunately we, the public, are not getting consistent and reliable information from anyone. Not from our news organizations, not from the Opposition, and definitely not from the Government. We are completely on our own in this and we have to educate each other because we essentially don’t have anyone looking out for us. The current Parliamentary process of ratifying trade agreements is not going to provide an avenue for change but there might be some opportunity for us to learn more about the agreements. However, only a handful of people follow what happens in the debating chamber so it’ll be up to those to get the word out. And even that will ultimately be futile. 

I end this with the following Tweet. This is what people expect protesters to be experts on: 


  1. Very good points. Very educative and thought provoking.
    I also liked your previous excellent article, 'Nu Zilund Day should get in the sea'


  2. You have to wonder how "opposed" to the TPPA Labour really are........This is a real problem for those on the left and may help to explain their poor polling.....