Gordon Campbell on that alluringly elusive TPP trade deal

Column – Gordon Campbell

How is this for a cart before the horse notion of democracy, as practiced by the Key government? From the NZ Herald this morning: [Prime Minister John Key] is also indicating he wants a deal done as soon as possible so he can publicly discuss …

Gordon Campbell on that alluringly elusive TPP trade deal

by Gordon Campbell

How is this for a ‘cart before the horse’ notion of democracy, as practiced by the Key government? From the NZ Herald this morning:

[Prime Minister John Key] is also indicating he wants a deal done as soon as possible so he can publicly discuss the detail at home in the face of vocal opposition. “We want to engage with transparency with the New Zealand public,” he said.

“Like a lot of these issues, left in a vacuum people can create uncertainty and therefore a fear factor which is very difficult for us to combat until we can go through point by point and say here is the counter-argument.”

The sooner a deal was finalised, the sooner he could engage in discussing it in more detail with the New Zealand public.

Incredible, really. In Key’s power bubble, you only tell people what you have been doing – stuff that affects New Zealand’s sovereignty, and that involves trade-offs of our rights and ability to enact regulations of our choice – after you’ve done the deal, and committed New Zealand to its terms. There is absolutely no good and democratic reason why the cone of secrecy dropped over these talks has to be observed. Other countries are not recognising these bizarre constraints as witness by the recent interview about the TPP deal by the chief Chilean negotiator Alvaro Jana. The cone of secrecy exists purely to enhance the ability of the US business lobbies (who have been driving this deal) to maximise their gains before people realise what has been done to them. The secrecy means Key has no mandate to proceed to tie this country to obligations that the public have been given no chance to discuss and approve.

Victory has been declared, regardless. According to Prime Minister John Key, significant progress has been made in Bali, and the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal is claimed to be “on track” for completion by year’s end, 2013. Really? If there was a TPP drinking game where you’d downed a shot every time that “significant progress” on this pact has been announced, you’d be in rehab by now. Try googling ‘TPP significant progress’ and 2011, and see what you get. Repeat the exercise for 2012, and 2013. With all that significant progress being made for so long, how come by September 2013 only a quarter of the 26 chapters to the deal have been finished, none of them the important ones?

How come the environment chapter as of early September, still had 300 bracketed areas signifying areas set to one side due to a lack of consensus? How come the US hasn’t yet tabled its current position on IP that will define the battleground for the very contentious area of pharmaceutical patents? How come a definition of SOEs hasn’t been agreed on, let alone an agreement on the rules for how they will operate? Repeat similar questions across almost all the chapters that haven’t yet been closed. Add in the shaky political support for this deal in Malaysia, Chile (facing a likely change of government to an anti-TPP position in mid November) and in the United States.

That said, there was one area where signs of “momentum” were evident in Bali. Japan has always been hostile to making concessions on agriculture. Yet the gains from freeing up Asian markets for our farm produce is probably the only rationale for New Zealand making any concessions at all in the other TPP chapters. In that respect, the current Japanese government that is engaging with the TPP process is caught between a rock and a hard place – given that it campaigned on a promise to maintain a tariff ‘sanctuary’ for the five broad agricultural areas of rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and farm products that are used as sweeteners, such as sugar cane. Yesterday though, the Japan News site carried a report (originating from the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper) showing that in Bali, the Japanese have been trying to find wiggle room, by scouring the 586 product items in the five key farm categories, in order to find those least likely to be affected if the tariffs were to be abolished.

In practice, the government and ruling parties will check whether there are any items whose import volume will not rapidly increase and will not damage domestic producers if tariffs are removed….The ruling LDP party secretary general Shigeru Ishiba added, “Though we will examine rice, wheat and other products item by item, it will not be a premise to removing tariffs. It will not run counter to our party’s election pledge that we will not remove tariffs unless a sanctuary is maintained.”

Thus, the LDP government of Prime Minister Shenzo Abe is hoping it can retain the fiction of a tariff sanctuary for the five main categories as a whole, while it whittles away the tariff levels for certain items within them. Even if the Abe government can get away with this politically fraught gambit, it remains to be seen whether the items in question will match up with those of most interest to New Zealand. The simple reality is that the Japanese need to improve their tariff liberalisation rate – i.e. the ratio of product items on which tariffs will be abolished – and get it up to 95%. Yet if it keeps its current ‘sanctuary’ position for farm products, it will reach only 93.5%. From one perspective then, the good news is that Japan will need to cut its tariffs on agriculture; the bad news is that they may have to be so substantial they won’t be politically viable, back home. Result: deadlock. Or instead, TPP exemptions for Japan that will erode the value of the deal to New Zealand in particular, while also undermining our rationale for making concessions in other realms of the deal.

A final deal by year’s end – even if that were possible – would at best, be only a draft deal. It would then remain for US President Barack Obama to (a) get so called “fast track’ authority, aka Trade Promotion Authority from Congress to negotiate the deal and then (b) win a vote in Congress to get the deal passed. Both steps look incredibly daunting, given the current mood of Congress, a mood likely to darken during a 2014 that contains midterm elections. Snowballs have a better chance in hellfire than Obama has in being gifted an election year triumph for a deal opposed by many Democrats and Republicans alike, for different reasons. So it is somewhat bizarre to hear so much of the New Zealand media simply relaying the spin that a deal in on track to be concluded by year’s end, 2013. At the TPP’s current rate of progress, all the signs are that this is virtually impossible – and even if a draft deal could somehow be agreed upon, it is very, very unlikely to be passed until 2015, at the earliest.

Let’s revisit some of those “significant progress” milestones:

September 2011
The eighth round of TPP negotiations wrapped up in Chicago after 10 days of intensive discussions. The New Zealand team and our partners were focused on the twin goals of negotiating a high-quality, 21st-century TPP outcome and meeting TPP Ministers’ desire for the “broad outlines” of an agreement by APEC in November [2011] Significant progress was made toward both of those goals in Chicago.

July 2012
The United States said “significant progress” was made in talks aimed at creating an ambitious trade agreement with eight other Pacific Rim countries. US officials said areas discussed included customs, telecommunications, cross-border services and government procurement.

August 2012
The United States and its fellow Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) members are making significant progress toward concluding a comprehensive trade deal set to boost economies and create jobs throughout the Asia-Pacific region, according to Deputy U.S. Trade Representative Demetrios Marantis…

September 2012
The Trade Ministers of the countries negotiating the extension to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)…..have pointed to the significant progress on many of the 29 chapters under negotiation….

July 2013
Media Statement after the TPP round in Kota Kinabulu : “ ….Although significant progress was made during the 18th Round, there are still a number of issues that require further work. We are now entering a stage where negotiators have to deal with the more difficult and sensitive issues. [Really? So soon?]

October, 2013
The leaders of the dozen countries negotiating a potentially transformative Pacific Rim trade pact said yesterday that they had made “significant progress” towards a deal and charged officials with wrapping it up by the end of the year.

October 2013
[US Trade Representative Mike Froman] said….negotiators had made “significant progress” in Bali on the Pacific trade pact talks.

Same script, same narrative arc – boys pursue trade deal, boys always find it disappearing, alluringly into the fog, no matter how hard they paddle. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote the book, quite some time ago.


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