A guest post by left-wing activist and Green Party member Elliot Crossan.
4 February 2016 was the day I learnt what the power of ordinary people felt like. I marched with 30,000 others in the streets of Auckland against the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, and I could feel the raw anger of a mass movement, whose years of resistance towards the National government and towards the signing away of Aotearoa’s democracy was coming to a furious head. The mood was different to the two previous demonstrations I had attended—this time the atmosphere was alive with a pure, tangible defiance; an electrical energy. We felt like we would do whatever we needed to do in order to show the powerful that they could not get away with what they were trying to impose on us. The city felt alive with possibility: that maybe, just maybe, a mass of people coming together to articulate our views could actually have an effect on the democratic system so many have a deep distrust for.
It cannot be understated just how crucial it is to any progressive vision of Aotearoa that we stop TPPA. The Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms were the main catalyst for concern around which the opposition movement mobilised. ISDS clauses would allow corporations to sue governments and overturn laws which harm their profits. This would jeopardize urgently needed reforms to combat social inequality, to honour our obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi, or to protect our environment—as a report from Executive Director of the Sustainability Council Simon Terry highlights, “over 85% of the money paid out to date by governments under free trade and investment deals with the US have involved claims over resources and the environment.” Any attempt to reverse the privatisations of the last 33 years, or even to regulate the market, would be threatened. Worse still, ISDS cases would’ve been decided in unaccountable international tribunals instead of in national courts. This means that TPPA would further embed the ideology which places profit over people and planet into international law.
Leading legal expert and TPPA critic, Jane Kelsey, highlights in a recent article for the Spinoff a chapter of the agreement which has not had enough attention: the chapter on electronic commerce, which she says is “basically, a set of rules that will cement the oligopoly of Big Tech for the indefinite future, allowing them to hold data offshore subject to the privacy and security laws of the country hosting the server, or not to disclose source codes, preventing effective scrutiny of anti-competitive or discriminatory practices.” She goes on to outline how “other rules say offshore service providers don’t need to have a presence inside the country, thus undermining tax, consumer protection and labour laws, and governments can’t require locally established firms to use local content or services.” This is further evidence of how the agreement is not about trade—it is about enshrining corporate control decades into the future.
Labour, New Zealand First and Green politicians turned up to our marches against the TPPA, and made political capital from voicing their concurrence with the demands of our movement. Then-frontbencher Jacinda Ardern said of TPPA that “it is unlike any free trade agreement we’ve been party to before”, and that “it wasn’t just state to state, it was corporate to state.” The Labour Party’s minority submission in the Select Committee concluded with the statement “the TPPA will have ramifications for generations of New Zealanders. For their sake, we should not so lightly enter into an agreement which may exacerbate long-term challenges for our economy, workforce, and society.” Winston Peters went so far as to write a piece for the Dominion Post entitled “With the Trans-Pacific Partnership, New Zealand is signing a blank cheque”, and opining that “being a beacon of free and fair trade is what New Zealand once claimed it stood for. That clearly is not something that current TPPA proponents in New Zealand can argue now. When it comes to the naivety shower some New Zealanders seem to want all the water.” Meanwhile, Barry Coates, who was one of the leaders of the campaign against the TPPA, briefly served as a Green MP, and was highly placed on the party’s list going into the election; the Greens were sounding alarm bells about TPPA as far back as 2010, and of the three parties in government, have the most consistent record of opposition.
Yet how swiftly have the tables turned. Now that they are in power, both Labour and New Zealand First have decided to support what campaign group It’s Our Future are calling “the Zombie TPPA”, the revived agreement minus the United States. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Trade Minister David Parker are desperately insisting that their sudden shift of stance is “not a u-turn”, while Winston Peters is claiming that “the deal is not the deal inherited, it’s different … with substantial changes with the types that the Canadians were holding out on as well, that we both have seen changes that mean we can support this deal”. Only the Greens remain against it, with new MP and trade spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman maintaining staunch opposition and outlining how the Greens believe that disagreement and protest within government, including on the TPPA, are essential to the Green vision.
Has the TPPA, now it has been rebranded as the “Comprehensive and Progressive TPP”, changed in nature? Jane Kelsey believes it has not, saying that “at present, the deal that they have now said has been substantially improved has 22 of over 1,000 provisions suspended—not removed—and those will be reactivated if the US decides to reengage with the deal. So it’s the same old deal, it’s just got a bit of tinsel on it.” Green co-leader James Shaw has asserted that “As long as the ISDS mechanisms remain in place, the TPP-11 undermines New Zealand’s ability to stand up for the protection and enhancement of our environment and our national sovereignty.
Here lie two essential questions. Was the movement against the TPPA just protesting the National Party, or was it about a broader opposition towards control of Aotearoa by business elites no matter which party is in power? Political commentators from leftist Giovanni Tiso to right-wing attack blogger Cameron Slater are asking the same question. If, as I believe, the answer was the latter—what do we do to stop this corporate stitch-up of an agreement once and for all, now that Labour and New Zealand First have betrayed us?
If the deal goes to a vote in the House, then National, ACT, Labour and New Zealand First will vote for it, with only the Greens opposed. It will pass 112 votes to 8. But the opposition to TPPA must not melt away quietly, resigned to defeat. It may be that we cannot stop the deal now, but there is no question that we have to try with all our might to bring it down.
We must heed the essential lesson which all those who have gone before us in wanting to change the world in favour of ordinary people have learnt—that, to use the words of slavery abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “power concedes nothing without demand. It never has, and it never will.” If we want to stop corporate elites and their allies in government from getting away with imposing this deal onto us, we have to be prepared to organise and to disrupt—we cannot rely on the goodwill of politicians to change the world for us. We should not have needed Jacinda and Winston to remind us of this!
So what is to be done? Firstly, we need to educate people on how the “CPTPP” is no different from the deal National tried to sell us. Jane Kelsey is going on a speaking tour to this purpose this month—you can find your local meeting here.
Secondly, we need to organise to hold demonstrations as big if not bigger than our protests against the original TPPA. We should not tone down our resistance when so-called progressive parties are in power—we should be angrier! The National Party exists to serve the interests of the wealthy and privileged; but Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens claim to exist to represent the people. The fact that Labour and New Zealand First are so readily and easily willing to drop their principles as soon as they enter government should cause us shock and outrage, not passivity. We need to be as loud and defiant in our resistance to the government’s betrayal as possible.
Thirdly, we need to mobilise forms of protest which show the threat people power can pose to those who seek to govern us. The unions should strongly consider strike action to demonstrate the high political price any government will pay if it tries to serve the interests of profit over looking after the wellbeing of the people and planet. We should also consider the option of staging occupations and creating significant inconveniences for the powerful. We need to frighten Labour and New Zealand First into doing what we want them to do if we actually want them to listen to us. Politics is not a nice game where everybody is polite—the powerful know this, and we need to learn the same thing if we are serious about stopping them.
I make my fourth argument as someone who has been a member of the Green Party for three years and served in 2017 as the Co-Convenor of the Young Greens. The Greens only have eight MPs, three of whom are Ministers outside of Cabinet—apart from the areas agreed in our Confidence and Supply agreement, the party has little to no power over government… other than the power to bring the government down in a situation desperately important enough. And I would argue that TPPA presents such a situation.
Agreeing to an international legal framework which makes irreversible the current economic system, which is an engine constantly driving private profit and carbon emissions up while the people and planet suffer, is a permanent threat to democracy and to progressive values. The Green Party Charter contains four principles: ecological wisdom, social responsibility, appropriate decision making, and non-violence, with a preamble to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi. The founding document of the Greens simply cannot be implemented within the structures TPPA would entrench. This poses an existential threat which cannot be ignored to the hopes and dreams that Greens, and progressives in general, have for the future of Aotearoa.
Bringing down the government is a drastic move to make, especially so early in its term. There are few things which could necessitate such a play being made, but TPPA is, in my view, undeniably one of them. There is simply no alternative if we are serious about creating a better future.
What would the effect of the Greens withdrawing Confidence and Supply be? Given it is far too late now for Winston to make a u-turn and support National, and given the Greens would never prop up National, neither National or Labour would have the confidence of the House. This would mean Ardern would have to choose whether to concede to the Greens, or to call another election.
What would happen in another election? Polling taken in 2012 through 2016 indicates a broad public opposition to TPPA. An election held on the basis of the agreement would favour the Greens well, as long as the party could effectively communicate the gravity of the threat posed by the agreement, and hammer home that we are the only party who have never wavered in our stance against it. Given their u-turn on the trade deal so many of its members and supporters despise, Labour would be at risk of losing its progressive base to the Greens. This is especially true given how fiercely Labour’s newly won Māori voters are against TPPA. Even moreso, New Zealand First would be set to implode—Winston is already in big trouble, with his party on 3.8% in the latest Newshub-Reid Research poll. Even before the full extent of the TPPA debate has taken place, New Zealand First are in big trouble. It would not benefit Jacinda or Winston at all to risk a second election fought over their swift reversal of positions over such a crucial issue.
Perhaps a compromise is in order. Given the fact that Labour and New Zealand First went into the election opposing TPPA, and given that it permanently removes democratic rights from New Zealanders, the very least that the government should do would be to allow a binding referendum to take place before agreeing to the deal. If the people of this country vote to back the “Comprehensive and Progressive” TPPA, then fair enough, the government can pass it through parliament. If not, we should expect Labour and New Zealand First to return to their original position and vote against it.
There could not be anything more destructive to the Greens than to allow a trade deal to pass through parliament which would allow corporations to sue governments. To chain the hands of future governments to corporate rule and the prioritisation of profit over any of our principles would be a farce that would destroy hope of progressive change in Aotearoa. If we are, however, prepared to stand up and fight back, it is now or never.
What are we ever going to achieve if we are not prepared to play hardball? The answer is unequivocal—nothing.
If you want to read more from Elliot Crossan, please go to www.watermelonmedia.co.nz