Gordon Campbell on the media’s duty to evaluate the TPP

Column – Gordon Campbell

One downside of so called objectivity is that it can turn the media into a simple megaphone for those in power – especially in situations where the media chooses to effectively abandon its role in evaluating the information it is being fed. The …

Gordon Campbell on the media’s duty to evaluate the Trans Pacific Partnership

One downside of so called ‘objectivity’ is that it can turn the media into a simple megaphone for those in power – especially in situations where the media chooses to effectively abandon its role in evaluating the information it is being fed. The reportage on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a good case in point. You could hardly find a process with bigger ramifications for this country – in terms of the alleged payoffs for our economy, and with regard to the potential cost in national sovereignty – that is receiving less in the way of critical evaluation.

There has been almost no active reporting on the deal by the New Zealand mainstream media, or attempts at evaluating the content, or the current state of play of the TPP negotiations. What has been settled? What remains to be settled ? Ultimately, has a TPP deal got any chance of being passed by the US Congress? Are the goals New Zealand are seeking – in say, access to our agricultural markets in Asia – achievable now, in 20 years time, or only in the never never? And if so, what should that mean for the trade-offs that we are being expected to make in other areas?

So far, the politicians managing the process – Trade Minister Tim Groser, Prime MInister John Key – have successfully imposed a cone of silence over the TPP talks such that any other source of information is seen as activism, and routinely discounted. Or is regarded as protectionism in disguise – as in this morning’s NZ Herald editorial, which happily burbles away that New Zealanders should be so proud that our Prime Minister is chairing a committee on something that is so very, very important.

Embarrassing, airhead stuff. It needn’t be that way. Elsewhere – in the Canadian, Japanese, Chilean and US media – there has been consistent, active discussion of the TPP content, and about its prospects of meeting its ever-optimistic deadlines. Specialist publications – like the authoritative Inside US Trade and Washington Trade Daily – have been reporting in detail about the TPP for years. Nor is the cone of silence being strictly observed by the overseas media, or even by some of the negotiators. In Chile, it was the business magazine Pulso that interviewed Chile’s chief negotiator Alvaro Jana, and were told by him that as of August 30, only a quarter of the TPP’s 26 chapters had been completed, with none of them being the important ones.

Elsewhere on Scoop, this month’s issue of Werewolf has reported in detail on the current logjams in the TPP negotiations. The reality is that all of the TPP contentious chapters that were central and contentious two years ago remain deadlocked today. Yet the mainstream reportage continues to repeat the spin that “significant progress” has been made lately, and “cautious optimism” exists that the talks can be completed by year’s end. (Like Zeno’s arrow, that significant progress never reaches the target.)

Given the size of the existing gaps in the negotiating positions, TPP closure could only be achieved if there were huge concessions and giveaways at a political level – and since so much of the process has been conducted in secret, Key and Groser can hardly claim to have a mandate for the wholesale horse-trading that this would require. Yet the spin continues to be reported as fact, and a TPP deal is always glimmering beyond the horizon. Allegedly, we’re in the ‘end zone’ now, and all it will take to conclude the deal is for a few brave politicians to give it one last series of shoves over the finishing line.

A reality check on the current obstacles to closure of a TPP deal, in no particular order of importance:

1. There is no agreement on whether the TPP deal, if and when completed, would take precedence over the region’s existing welter of bilateral trade pacts. (see Inside US Trade September 19)

2. There is no agreement on how to certify compliance with the deal, and thus its ratification once passed. Chile in particular is baulking at having its ratification subjected to a humiliating vetting process by the US Congress.

3. Incredibly, US President Barack Obama still has no “fast track” authority (aka Trade Promotion Authority) to negotiate a TPP deal. If he doesn’t get TPA, Congress will retain the power next year (or more likely, in 2015) to pull any subsequent deal apart, clause by clause. The US National Association of Manufacturers has come out in favour of Congress granting TPA powers to the Obama administration but Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson claims (Inside US Trade, October 2) that a significant number of House Democrats and Republicans will ultimately vote against the TPP, “given the loss of US manufacturing jobs and trade imbalances that have resulted from earlier trade deals, as well as the abrogation of US sovereignty that they perceive results from such provisions as investor state dispute settlements”.

It gets worse for Obama. As the federal shutdown and the hostility to Obamacare has shown, the Republican-dominated lower House is in no mood to hand Obama any victories – and especially not in the run-up to the 2014 mid term elections. Deeply held principles are felt to be at stake. Many conservatives, libertarians and Tea Party members, Grayson explained, oppose the TPP on constitutional grounds, as going beyond the US Constitution (via foreign investor state dispute tribunals)in order to undermine US domestic law. For similar reasons, even the White House gaining TPA fast track powers seems unlikely. Grayson noted that the timetable for unveiling the [TPA] bill has been slipping, and that the measure may never come to a vote. “We may never see the fast track on the floor of the House because it may never have the votes.” Grayson said. “The opposition is strong enough.” Yet if Obama cannot get TPA – which would enable him to push the TPP through Congress on a straight up and down vote, and not via a clause by clause analysis that would shred its contents – the TPP really has no future at all.

4. The US has not yet tabled its response to the rejection of its previous position on pharmaceutical patents. This is at the heart of the IP chapter. Reportedly, a proposal has also emerged whereby developed countries agree to recognise longer patent terms (which would adversely impact on Pharmac’s ability to buy generics) and to provide shorter patent terms for developing countries.

5. As of early September, the Japanese press was reporting that there were still 300 ‘bracketed’ items in the environment chapter, signifying points of continued disagreement. The same reports indicated that the TPP has not yet arrived at even a definition of ‘state owned enterprises’, much less found a way to close the SOEs chapter in its entirety. The SOEs chapter is a particular bone of contention for Malaysia and Vietnam.

6. The US remains at loggerheads with other countries in the TPP over Malaysia’s drive to gain an exemption that would allow it to regulate tobacco advertising for health reasons. The US had looked likely to allow such an exemption. But then in August, Big Tobacco’s lobbying efforts caused Obama to cave in, and to propose a solution that as the Council on Foreign Relations has said, satisfies no-one. See the Werewolf story ‘No Ifs Not Butts’ for the full details.

6. Despite Groser’s insistence that the TPP has to be a single, inclusive deal with terms that apply equally to all members, there is a strong trend towards bilateral deals emerging within the TPP.

Increasingly, Groser looks like a voice in the wilderness as the US and Japan pursue terms better than those likely to be offered to other countries. (See the Werewolf story ‘The Parley in Bali’ for details and links on the trend towards bilateralism within the TPP.)

7. There has been no indication as yet (see Inside US Trade, September 26) from the Abbott government as to whether Australia will maintain its solitary opposition to mandatory investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms being included in the TPP. (Which raises a key point – how come New Zealand has chosen to abandon Australia to fight alone against ISDS powers that would expose this country to being sued before international trade tribunals if any future government should dare to pass laws that impinge on profit-taking by foreign investors?)

8. Currency manipulation. The US Congress is pushing for the TPP to contain rules against countries being able to engineer a fall in their currencies to assist their exports. In the short term the target of these rules is Japan, which US car makers claim is fiddling the yen in order to keep the price of Japanese vehicles artificially low for US motorists. However, China and its manipulation of an artificially low yuan to help its exports is the bigger target, long term, when and if China should ever seek to join the TPP. This bone of contention is creating a no win situation for the TPP. Right now, the TPP negotiators are resisting the inclusion of the currency manipulation issue, in recognition that this would surely kill the whole deal, stone dead. Yet if the final deal presented to Congress lacks such provisions, Congress will be even more inclined to kill it than it is already.

8. Chile faces a likely change of government in its November 17 elections, to one far more opposed to the TPP than the current administration. Chile will seek to revisit its obligations. Meaning: no TPP deal before year’s end.

9. The current government in Malaysia faces strong domestic opposition to its TPP participation. UNMO won the March general elections by only a slim majority and the opposition has since gone all out against the TPP – which is also strongly opposed by the ruling party’s mentor, the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. Meaning: just as the US business lobbies are pressing for harder positions on the US side, Malaysia is finding less and less political room for concessions.

I could go on, and on, into the details of each chapter. Or about the failings of our own ratification process – which would enable the TPP to be passed by executive order, without meaningful scrutiny by our Parliament. Should a deal done largely in secret while the media has slept, and devoid of any potential for meaningful evaluation be allowed to bind future governments for decades to come? Why would we agree to a deal that would restrict New Zealand’s ability to pass laws on behalf of its own citizens – all in order to enhance the position of foreign investors, and the name of alleged economic benefits to this country that seem highly unlikely to eventuate in the foreseeable? Perhaps it is time our media shook free of the spin that a TPP is imminent, and began to evaluate its content, and the current dire condition of the negotiations.


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