Where to New Zealand? Free Trade – Is it a religious issue?

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 23, Lent 2002
Jim Consedine

New Zealand is at a political crossroads. Clearly the Labour/Alliance coalition government of Helen Clark and Jim Anderton has moved since September 11 2001 into the slipstream of the US and its allies. By definition this means that we have become supporters of US foreign policy, on the basis that ‘those who are not with us are against us’. This has huge ramifica­tions for our future as a nation.

New Zealand has earned a reputation internationally these past 30 years as being somewhat independent. It is a position in which most New Zealanders take some pride. This independence ap­pears to be eroding as the government moves more to the right politically in an effort to maintain its hold on the centre ground of electoral opinion.

In as much as the US has declared war and we have swung onto their coattails, then technically New Zealand is a country still at war. The image presented to the world by the corporate media is of the US and its allies being engaged in a ‘war on terrorism’, goodies versus baddies. More accurately, it is partly a war on some terrorists (and the al-Qaeda net­work in particular) but primarily an aggressive war pro­moting trade and economic domination which seeks to place Western corporate interests in a controlling position in the global economy. When the US goes into a country chasing terrorists – and no boundary is sacred – in reality it is seeking to further its position as the dominant economic player in the world.

This was clearly spelt out at the November 2001 WTO meeting in Doha in the Gulf State of Quatar. The rich nations demanded and got a new round of ‘trade liberalisation’ which John Pilger describes as ‘the power to intervene in the economies of poor countries, to demand privatisation and the destruction of public services. Only the rich are permitted to protect their home industries and agriculture. Only they have the right to subsize exports of meat, grain and sugar, then to dump them in poor countries at artificially low prices, thereby destroying the livelihoods of millions of people.’ The US trade represen­tative in­voked the ‘war on terrorism’ to warn the developing world that no seri­ous opposition to the American trade agenda would be tolerated. The US understands ‘that the staying power of our new coalition (against terror­ism)… depends on economic growth.’ Here the term ‘economic growth’ (rich elite, poor majority) equals anti-terrorism. As Pilger says, ‘It is time to recognise that the real terrorism is poverty, which kills thousands of people every day. And the source of their suffering, and that of innocent people [killed by the war] in dusty villages, is directly related.’1

September 11 has also provided the Bush administration the opportunity to further militarise the US economy and develop weapons of mass destruction in ways unimaginable before that date. In February 2002, the President presented Congress with a $US2.1 trillion ($NZ5.8 trillion) budget, the bulk of which will be spent on the military. This budget would boost military and homeland security spending by 12 percent and 111 percent respectively, while allowing a scant 2 percent increase in other domestic spending. It will slash resources to organisations like the Environmental Protection Agency (hated by mining and oil interests) and many other domestic programmes. As if to make the message crystal clear, it proposes an additional $US591 billion in tax relief to the already wealthy to be spread over the next decade. This programme of military expenditure coupled with the proposed tax cuts could drain more than $US800 billion from Social Security and Medicare surpluses, which are pro­grammes accessed primarily by the poor.2 Not since the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan directly transferred more than a trillion dollars from the poor to the military and the super-rich has such grand theft and larceny been practiced by an American administration.

Any doubts that Washington’s agenda stretches way beyond dealing with ‘terrorists’ to a much more fundamental shift in its outreach and domination of the new world order have long since been dispelled. Every speech by their top officials re-enforces this scenario. The US path of unilateralism has seen it refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, expand the arms race through its ‘star wars’ National Missile Defence System (possibly costing up to $238b by 20253) and effectively scuttle the 1972 Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty. This has been largely at the behest of corporate business, particularly the arms industry and oil companies.

Dissent will not be tolerated. This can be seen from the sweeping new powers granted to the CIA, the FBI and other domestic spying agencies under the U.S.A. Patriot Act, passed almost unanimously by Congress late last year. Government agents can now wiretap phones, break in and search homes without a warrant, even copy computer hard drive material from private PCs. Foreigners can be detained secretly and indefinitely without being charged. If charged, trials could be held in military courts. The Bureau of Prisons is now allowed to eavesdrop on conversations between prisoners and their attorneys, and inmates can be held incommunicado (no visits, no phone calls, no mail) for up to a year, and potentially, indefinitely. Peace, environmental and non-violent social justice activists are being stopped at borders and have come under increasing surveillance from the authorities.

New Zealand and the US

This is what makes the decision by Helen Clark to meet President Bush later this year to talk about a special NAFTA-style trade agreement between the US and New Zealand a worrying proposal. Is it not giving a clear indication that our economic future is being intertwined with this global attempt at economic domination that major Western nations led by the US are engaged in? Free trade agreements are one major dimension of it. New Zealand has already signed such agreements with both Singapore and Hong Kong. Now it seems that this government is determined to ride into its economic future attached to the coattails of the world’s biggest economic bully. Support for the war and future trade prospects are now inextricably linked. A New Zealand Government Cabinet minute says, ‘countries’ responses to requests for co-operation in combating terrorism will be seen by the United States as a touchstone for bilateral partnerships’4

The downside of free trade is clear. There’s a huge price to pay. For example, 8 years of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which incorporates the US, Canada and Mexico, has seen 8 million Mexican families drop from the middle class into poverty, an additional 400,000 jobs lost in the US, a drop of 77 percent in the average pay of a displaced US worker’s next job, a rise to 19 million children in Latin American working as cheap labour and receiving no education.5 NAFTA has enabled the rich to accrue greater wealth, displaced hundreds of thousands of jobs, raised poverty levels both in the US and abroad, has reduced the sovereignty of individual governments over employment, economic, cultural and environmental issues and opened the way to further market domination by the ‘big brother’ partner.

Yet ‘free trade’ is never free. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, so there is no ‘free trade’. Somebody, sometime, somewhere pays. In the free trade field, it is usually workers who end up working for a pittance or alternatively get laid off because they cost too much. The culture suffers as it becomes saturated with cheap imports which few people want and even less need. Indigenous peoples’ rights, trade union freedoms and civil liberties all suffer.

What we are staring at down the barrel here in New Zealand is a further undermining of local industry. Our prospects for the development of new industries will be more limited. The possibility of New Zealand becoming GE free and maintaining collective organisations like Phamac will be much more problematic. These decisions won’t be ours to make. While US agri-business will almost certainly remain protected, our agricultural industry will be open to the biggest economic sharks. Researcher Bill Rosenberg predicts the further pressure to commercialise our social services such as education, health, public broadcasting, waste disposal and water and a further loss of control of capital movement and foreign investment.6

Yet while the social effects will be marked, it is the morality of the issue that is of most concern. The economic and foreign policies of the US are often unconscionable, despite being wrapped in religious terminology like good vs evil, freedom vs enslavement, democracy vs dictatorship. More accurately they should be wrapped in the US flag, since they appeal more to patriotism and a quasi-religious fundamentalism than to biblical justice and the teachings of Christ.

The Teachings of Christ

Yet the teachings of Christ are the only ones that bring true freedom from enslavement, and that consistently speak to goodness and justice over evil and exploitation. Jesus has already proclaimed ‘the new world order’, when he taught that it will occur when justice is practiced and ‘the poor are clothed, the hungry fed, prisoners are freed and the sorrowful comforted’. The true disciple of Christ seeks to free people from hunger by feeding them and working to create social systems that can provide sustainable food growth. The true disciple gives drink to the thirsty and works to try and ensure that the 2 billion people in the world without ready access to clean drinking water can gain it. The true disciple of Jesus offers shelter to the homeless and seeks to see that homelessness becomes a thing of the past. The true disciple of Jesus wants to free people from captivity and to pull down some of the prisons containing the 8.5 million people incarcerated worldwide (a number which has doubled in 20 years). Western leaders could do these things quite easily but choose not to. They choose instead to feather their own national nests while allowing hundreds of millions to die annually from homelessness, poverty, hunger and preventable disease. Such inaction is a crime against humanity. New Zealand shares in the guilt of this sinfulness.

The US economy, the richest in the world, offers nothing which looks even remotely likely to address any of these issues. A Bush social justice agenda simply doesn’t exist. That’s not surprising considering he is a president hoisted into office on the back of oil, tobacco, military and Enron money? In fact most of his social agenda seeks to tear down peoples’ pride and independence, to dominate weak third world nations, to reward the corporate giants who funded his election, and to imprison more at home and abroad, particularly dissidents. It seeks to further shift resources from the poor to the already rich. It seeks to create a heavily militarised world which can protect that wealth in the hands of the favoured elite.

How New Zealand can seek to snuggle up closer with such a regime is beyond comprehension. Our nation must end up the losers. Whatever integrity we have is being sorely tested in our desire to do business more closely with this immoral economic giant. If we are acting primarily through fear for our future, then learning to trust in the goodness of God and the innate goodness of ordinary people would be a healthy antidote to such fear. If it is just to try and secure our own economic wellbeing, then that should not be achieved through the exploitation of others. If we sow in tears, we will reap in tears, as the US is finding out to its immense cost.

Election Year

This is an election year in New Zealand. While the polls show that a majority of New Zealanders support the government’s re-election, there are a growing number who see our closer alignment with US foreign and trade policies as a dangerous path to be treading. Being independent has some huge pluses in terms of deciding our own destiny. Most New Zealanders have no desire to catch cold every Washington sneezes or corporate moguls cough in New York or Houston.

New Zealand is at a crossroads politically. Free trade is a religious issue that we need to take seriously. It is also a political, economic and social issue. We need greater public debate on it. We need to think through the implications of developing closer relations with the US while its government is so hell-bent on pursuing singular national interests by violence at the expense of the poor. And we need to wake up to their real not-so-hidden economic and trade agenda and disassociate ourselves from it. Because of its exploitative nature, it is sinful, gravely so. We should have no part of it.

1 The Guardian, 17 December 2001

2 Reuters, 7 February 2002

3 US Congressional Budget Office, January 2002, quoted in The Irish Times, 2 Febuary 2002

4 Ian Llewellyn, NZPA, 9 January 2002

5 Sojourners Magazine, February – March 2002

6 Check the Campaign Against Foreign Control’s (CAFCA) website: http://canterbury.cyberspace.org.nz/community/CAFCA

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