As a liberal democrat I believe that people should have the freedom to trade with one another provided that one person is not exploiting another. Similarly freedom to trade between countries is generally a good thing. It has tended to reduce the cost of living for people over the last one hundred years. For poorer countries increased trade has often been the means by which they have increased export income and increased living standards, healthcare and education. Conversely protectionist measures and import licensing are systems which have been fraught with abuse resulting in high prices for the public and big profits for a few private investors. Most New Zealanders who lived through the 1970s or 1980s can recall the high price of electrical equipment and motor vehicles. So free trade is fine where agreements are openly arrived at and no one group in society, particularly the poor and vulnerable, is made worse off. However that does not mean that all trade agreements are good ones or that liberals should blindly support a bad trade deal just because its a trade deal. When it comes to the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement (TPPA) there are several things that concern me and which don't appear to line up with some key liberal democratic principles.
Generally liberals support open government and transparent decision making. Secrecy and behind closed doors commercial deals are generally not a good thing. In fact we have laws to prevent private companies doing that kind of thing when it comes to setting prices. The reason we have laws against such secret arrangements is that they tend to be at the expense of the public and to enrich private interests. Why then, with the TPPA, is it OK for the public to be kept in the dark - but for commercial interests and government representatives to meet in secret to make deals? Such behaviour engenders suspicion and undermines confidence in public institutions.
Proponents of the TPPA claim that it's nothing to worry about because "all trade deals are arrived at this way". But such an argument does not stand up to scrutiny. If our negotiating position is being shared behind closed doors with other countries representatives and with corporate interest groups then why not with the public? In a democracy citizens are entitled to be informed. It is the government's job to persuade an informed citizenry that a decision is in the public interest. Depriving the public of the information is not a satisfactory alternative.
Serve the public interest
Liberals also believe that the government has an obligation to serve the public interest or the common good. The common good is about making all people better off. Reducing the welfare of one group so that other privileged groups gain is not acting in the common good. A trade deal that increases the price of medicines for the sick but allows large agribusiness interests to line their pockets does not serve the common good. A trade agreement which limits the ability of a government to regulate in the public interest does not serve the common good.
The government has developed a reputation for commercial pragmatism. One can debate whether that is well-founded or whether an unprincipled pragmatism is something to crow about. But even from such a standpoint - where ugly sacrifices are made in healthcare treatments and our regulators are handcuffed lest they upset private interests - the huge benefits for dairy that we were promised in return seem to have disappeared like a mirage in the desert.
Labour Spokesperson, Annette King, said: "The deal falls well below expectations with only disappointing crumbs for our dairy industry and extended patents on new drugs which will cost the taxpayer millions and leave New Zealanders without life-saving drugs.... New Zealanders must be told whether the government has traded away our right to further restrict foreign ownership of housing or farm land and what agreements have been made to allow foreign corporations to sue New Zealand for regulating in the public interest.
Commentator Colin James points out that Minister Grocer's arguments about the alleged benefits also include a hefty amount of gains that would have happened anyway under existing trade arrangements. "Tim Groser attributes the greater-than-forecast gains in sales to China since 2008 to the free trade agreement (FTA) when most of them might well -- probably would -- have happened anyway, given the spike in China's demand for milk products. (If he is right, then would the fall in the past year also logically have to be attributed to the FTA?)"
As Colin James highlights: (TPPA) "and similar regional agreements are about regulatory convergence every bit as much as, and arguably more than, about goods trade access. That is why patents and copyright were top of the United States' list and why opponents bother a lot about patents and copyright costs here and about investor-state dispute resolution issues, which do not yet have a global supervisory mechanism." (www.colinjames.co.nz)
Since 1984 New Zealand's (and many other countries') national sovereignty has been severely eroded by global economic centralisation - or what Pope Francis has termed the "technocratic paradigm". Government Ministers now say that New Zealand's influence is so small that we should join the TPPA club because being in, with a very tiny amount of influence, is better than being out on our own. However, in a democracy governments are meant to govern in the public interest. If the current economic model does not allow them to do that then they need a new model.
The full text of the TPPA should be published now and a lengthy and comprehensive public review of the Agreement needs to take place . Otherwise the public confidence in the Agreement will be undermined and so too will be the basis of trust between citizen and government that underpins democracy. Abolitionist and liberal activist Wendell Phillips was quoted in 1852 as saying:
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty; power is ever stealing from the many to the few. The manna of popular liberty must be gathered each day or it is rotten. ... Only by continued oversight can the democrat in office be prevented from hardening into a despot; only by unintermitted agitation can a people be sufficiently awake to principle not to let liberty be smothered in material prosperity.”