Trading our Sovereignty

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 60, Lent 2012

Mary-Ellen O’Connor

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) is a so-called ‘free trade’ agreement currently under negotiation between New Zealand and eight other countries – the United States, Chile, Peru, Brunei, Singapore, Australia, Malaysia and Vietnam. Three other countries – Japan, Canada and Mexico – are waiting to join the negotiations and there is a vision to extend it to all the countries of APEC. But however many countries join, the reality is that the US controls the negotiations in the interests of its own powerful multi-national corporations.

But trade is only a minor part of the agreement. ‘Free trade’ is just a clever branding exercise. Most trade between the countries concerned is already quite ‘free’. So what is it about?

The TPPA is effectively a bill of rights for big corporations that shackles future governments and our democratic right to decide future policy and laws.

The TPPA would be an agreement that guarantees special rights to foreign investors that operate from any of the TPPA countries. If these negotiations succeed they will create a mega-treaty across all countries that will put a straitjacket around what policies and laws sovereign governments can adopt or enact. In the case of New Zealand, these provisions could impact on the labelling of genetically modified food, laws restricting foreign investment, price of medicines, regulation of dodgy finance firms, regulation of mining activities, all aspects of ACC, Treaty claims preventing sales of taonga, intellectual property protection especially in digital media, limiting of tobacco advertising, or provision for local content on TV. Protection for labour or the environment could be severely weakened and there would be no preference for New Zealand business in major government procurement projects. Our commitments under the Treaty of Waitangi would be read through the lens of this ‘trade’ treaty. Put simply, anything that interferes with the untrammeled profit-making of corporations risks being challenged. And it is the US corporations that are the largest and have the most to gain.

The TPPA is effectively a bill of rights for big corporations that shackles future governments and our democratic right to decide future policy and laws. This works at several levels. Firstly, laws about foreign investment would be locked so they could only be weakened, not strengthened. Secondly, it would guarantee foreign firms are consulted over any proposed new laws, and governments would have to show how they had responded to their views. (NZers have no such guarantee of input into our own laws!)

Thirdly, if the government goes ahead with a new policy or law that the investors say affects the value of their investment, they could sue the government for millions of dollars for breaching their rights under the TPPA, thereby trumping our domestic laws. Phillip Morris (Asia) has already invoked these provisions under an investment agreement with similar rules to sue the government of Australia about its decision to have plain packaging of cigarette packets. Such cases are heard in secret international tribunals run under World Bank or UN rules, not in our domestic courts. (This decision is pending.) Even if governments say they have a good defence, as Australia does, these long and expensive cases are a way to harass governments and the threat may be enough to achieve a backdown.

In New Zealand, in the case of The Hobbit and Warner Bros, we have already seen how one company could bring pressure to bear to both change labour laws and winkle massive tax subsidies from a government that maintains there’s no money for health, early childcare or public transport. All negotiations are secret. The bits we do know are garnered through leaks. The final text does not have to be approved by Parliament, it can be ratified just by Cabinet. Once the negotiations are over and the treaty is signed it does go to a select committee, but this committee has no power to change its substance, but merely to report back to parliament about any concerns. Parliament’s only power is to block changes to New Zealand’s laws that a TPPA might require, creating a standoff with the government that has already agreed to them. All documents except the final text would remain secret for four years after signing. This secrecy means that the media is not really attuned to what is happening and most people are simply unaware of its potentially draconian nature. The agreement is forever unless a party withdraws, but that is not a real option for a range of legal, diplomatic and economic reasons.

How does the New Zealand government justify the TPPA? The familiar line is that it is all about better access for Fonterra into the huge US market. But as US economist and former World Bank president Joseph Stiglitz frankly stated ‘Most of these ‘free trade’ agreements are…managed trade agreements and they’re mostly managed for the advantage of the United States, which has the bulk of the negotiating power… One can’t think that New Zealand would ever get anything that it cares about.’ A Wikileaks cable showed that even NZ’s lead negotiator didn’t expect any significant gains.

So why would the government secretly sell out our right to make our own choices about public health and safety, our environment, our tino rangatiratanga, sovereignty, in fact our future? Partly because they are true believers in free trade ideology.

Losses is what we’ll get. Even the Australian Productivity Commission has said these agreements are bad deals.

So why would the government secretly sell out our right to make our own choices about public health and safety, our environment, our tino rangatiratanga, sovereignty, in fact our future? Partly because they are true believers in free trade ideology. Partly because they think a TPPA can morph into an Asia-Pacific-wide free trade agreement that will spread their gospel to the new powerhouses that will dominate the 21st century. Partly to pander to the US in its moves to strengthen its role in Asia and counter the influence of China.

TPP Action is required. And the best action is to throw spanners in the works – highlight the awful possibilities, bad examples of what might happen, extrapolate from other ‘free trade’ agreements. Organise meetings. Put the heat on politicians of all varieties. Reflect on the insanity of it all. As was commented the other day ‘If you loved multi-national banks, you’ll really love multi-national blood banks’ (globalised blood supply being one ambition of the US corporate health lobby).

The next formal negotiating round takes place in Melbourne in March. While they keep changing dates and places (all part of the secrecy agenda) it seems there will be a big meeting in New Zealand in September. We need to get it off the rails before then!

What we can do about it and how can we find out more?

Get the word around all your networks, facebook pages, websites and media.

Organise meetings and action around the TPPA.

Ask your MPs, local government and iwi leaders if they know what’s going on.

Demand the government holds an inquiry to bring the negotiations into the daylight -’Release the Text’.

For information and campaigning websites on the TPPA in Aotearoa and internationally, see www.tppwatch.org, www.tppdigest.org, www.nznotforsale.org, and follow the links.

Mary-Ellen O’Connor is a coordinator of TPPWatch, the national organisation formed to educate New Zealanders about the dangers of the TPPA.

Comments are closed.