Fran O'Sullivan: TPP is too important for Little's partisan political football

Tim Groser built on Phil Goff's record and worked with other nations. Photo / AP
Tim Groser built on Phil Goff's record and worked with other nations. Photo / AP

The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is too important to New Zealand's economic future for Andrew Little to turn it into a partisan political football.

Little has attempted to somersault on the proverbial pin by giving former Labour leader and trade minister Phil Goff a dispensation to take his own position on the agreement - ostensibly because of "his involvement in negotiating its predecessor the P4 agreement" . Yet at the same time, stamping on former leader David Shearer for vocalising support for TPP because he wants his MPs to fall into line with the nebulous notion of caucus "collective responsibility".

It is difficult to understand why Little prefers the judgment of NGO activists over that of a former NZ Trade Minister who not only negotiated the ground-breaking bilateral China free trade deal but also finalised the Asean deal with New Zealand and Australia.

Frankly there is nothing responsible in Little's positioning.

Successive New Zealand governments - and their negotiators - have worked hard indeed to bring global economic giants like the United States and Japan and frankly protectionist nations like Canada into an Asia-Pacific agreement.

This is no mean feat.

New Zealand vision and leadership has been to the fore in securing TPP.

The reality is it had earlier proved impossible for New Zealand to forge separate bilateral agreements with these three countries as NZ was simply too small, too insignificant and not of sufficient strategic importance for these much bigger nations to bother.

Against all the predictions of New Zealand's army of Chicken Littles, the deal will be signed in Auckland next week.

Yet an Asia-Pacific deal - with all its imperfections - is about to be signed.

Little should also be celebrating Labour's role in originating the TPP.

Goff did much - much more - than Little's parsimonious comments suggest to get TPP launched.

It was Goff and former Republican US Trade Representative Susan Schwab who agreed to expand the P4 deal into a broader Asia-Pacific agreement.

They had the support of former Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark and former US President George Bush who wanted to bind the region together and increase the ability to trade in goods and services instead of falling prey to the protectionist sentiments which emerged in the wake of September 11.

Former National Trade Minister Tim Groser built on Goff's record and worked with other nations to ultimately build TPP into a 12-economies strong agreement again at a time when frank protectionist sentiments emerged in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis.

It is important for New Zealand to be patched into these regional agreements rather than suffer trade disadvantage by being on the outside.

Little maintains his caucus cannot support the deal in its current form due to its "compromise of New Zealand's sovereignty."

Goff has been circumspect "I'm respectful of Labour's position on it ... I have on record taken a somewhat different position."

But - in a short lesson to his leader - did say all international deals involve some giving up of sovereignty.

Other Labour MPs who do support ratifying TPP are silenced.

In Shearer's case, he is an internationalist.

He is a man who makes up his own mind after taking careful soundings. He's fully aware of the role international trade plays in uniting the global community and the imperative towards economic integration in the Asia Pacific.

Yet he is now being reprimanded.

Labour MPs like Clayton Cosgrove and Stuart Nash will also be seething at their leader's stance. Sure, they will cover it up in public - no-one wants to be dumped down the greasy pole of Labour's political rankings by taking issue with their leader publicly.

But the real pity of Little's stance is that it undercuts the intention of his new trade spokesman David Clark to reassert Labour's decades long role in working either in or out of government with is major opponent in a bipartisan approach on trade.

New Zealand has a proud record of bipartisanship when it comes to pursuing our advantage on the world stage: not just the many preferential trade agreements which successive National and Labour Governments have negotiated; but also our role in deepening global trade by taking a pro-active role in promoting major giants like China and Russia to successfully join the World Trade Organisation; promoting leaders like Helen Clark, Don McKinnon and Mike Moore to achieve high international office, and, securing NZ's role on the Security Council.

Against all the predictions of NZ's army of Chicken Littles, the deal will be signed in Auckland next week.

Trade Minister Todd McClay hasn't been involved in the TPP negotiations.

But McClay will be in the box seat on Thursday when he chairs a ministerial meeting of TPP prior to the formal signing ceremony at Auckland's SkyCity. As chair he will float the prospect of Auckland hosting a future secretariat for TPP - assuming it is finally ratified by the 12 signatory nations.

As the formal repository for the agreement - a status NZ will continue to enjoy - New Zealand has an advantage. But the issue has yet to be formally discussed at TPP ministerial level.

It is a proud week for New Zealand.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

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