Trade Minister Todd McClay is out to banish the taint of excessive secrecy from New Zealand's free trade negotiations by holding a public session with this country's trade negotiators during this week's regional economic negotiations.
Says McClay: "I am eager for everyone to have an opportunity to learn more about trade and trade negotiation. For this reason the public discussion with be live-streamed to allow people in any part of New Zealand to participate."
The 13th round of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade negotiation gets under way in Auckland today.
Around 500 negotiators, support officials and stakeholders from the 16 nations taking part in RCEP have converged on Auckland for the three-day session.
The trade minister is clearly hoping a more inclusive approach will stymie the type of public opposition that built towards the rival Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and resulted in Auckland central city roads being brought to a standstill by protests during the TPP signing ceremony earlier this year.
McClay says two factors distinguish this negotiating round from others: First, the negotiators will make the overall case for RCEP in public at the stakeholder session, and second, there will a webcast of a separate public session with NZ's negotiators where questions can be put.
The negotiations are at the stage where the participating nations have tabled their offers - what they are prepared to concede for tariff reductions and the removal of specific non-tariff barriers in return for concessions from other parties.
"New Zealand's participation in RCEP complements New Zealand's existing free trade agreements in Asia, and will help New Zealand build new FTA relationships, notably with India. It will help to make the region's 'noodle bowl' of rules operate better together, reducing the costs for New Zealand's businesses to operate in the region," says McClay.
Of the 15 other countries participating in RCEP, India is the only one with which New Zealand has yet to forge a trade agreement.
India will be in the spotlight at this 13th round with McClay acknowledging it is the key outlier.
Indian officials speaking under anonymity are reported as saying that most RCEP members want the tariffs on agreed goods to be reduced to zero within a 10-year time frame which they believe is too ambitious for their country. China has also upped the ante by demanding India eliminate duties on sensitive items like steel, electronics and chemicals.
India has the highest average tariff rate among the RCEP countries at 13.5 per cent. It also has the most protected agricultural produce market with an average applied rate of 33.5 per cent. The Government also wants to get an informal readout on progress towards a bilateral NZ free trade deal with India from Shri Arvind Mehta. Mehta is the lead Indian negotiator on WTO matters, RCEP negotiations, India-Australia CECA and the India-New Zealand trade negotiations.
Some difficult issues between India and New Zealand will also be tackled at a one-day Agribusiness Summit being held in Auckland today by the India New Zealand Business Council in conjunction with Fieldays.
16 countries: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam plus Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand.
• Stakeholders put their views on RCEP to negotiators on tomorrow at 3pm in the Sky City Convention Centre. There will be a general overview of the RCEP negotiations followed by a focus on services trade in the region.
• A separate opportunity to discuss RCEP with NZ's negotiators will come on Tuesday 14 June at 5.30pm at the SkyCity Convention Centre. This public session will be live-streamed.