Fran O'Sullivan: Goff adding muscle to Pacific trade push

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Phil Goff sees trade as New Zealand's life blood. Photo / APN
Phil Goff sees trade as New Zealand's life blood. Photo / APN

Labour's Phil Goff is back in business, adding his strong and rational voice to New Zealand's advocacy for the completion of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Goff wants to see a renewed focus on the upside for New Zealand from achieving greater access to some of the Asia-Pacific's economic powerhouses through a deal which will link 12 nations.

To Goff trade is New Zealand's lifeblood.

He reckons the Labour Party has to become focused on economic growth, jobs and tax revenue - "You can't legislate for revenue."

The challenge for Labour is to interpret trade policy around its own core values. "There are huge advantages from being involved with TPP and even bigger disadvantages of being locked out. But there are defensive issues where we need to fight tooth and nail to protect interests."

Goff has had the shadow trade portfolio only since Monday but already he is signalling that the bilateral consensus that has sustained New Zealand's international reputation for nearly three decades will be continued.

This should not surprise experienced observers, as it was on Goff's watch as Labour's high-flying Trade Minister that New Zealand's ground-breaking free trade agreement with China was sealed.

He also persuaded former United States Trade Representative Susan Schwab to bring the US into the TPP negotiations. The TPP, a huge trading initiative, was launched under Helen Clark's former Labour Government.

But unfortunately Labour's lustre in this area has been diminished since Goff himself took over the leadership from Clark after the 2008 election defeat. Neither Maryan Street nor Clayton Cosgrove, who subsequently held the trade shadow portfolio, were strong advocates for the TPP.

While the MPs could not fairly be described as TPP opponents, much of their focus has been on greater openness for the talks and strong concerns over the need to ensure key New Zealand interests are not traded away in the haste to get the deal done.

This has led to Labour (unfairly) being bracketed with the Greens as "anti-trade".

Goff is critical that the National-led Government has not created a broad constituency for TPP. He's looked at the local coverage and registered that 90 per cent of TPP-related stories appear to have been generated by Auckland law professor and anti-trade deal advocate Jane Kelsey.

"Where is the balance?" he questions. It's a valid point that the Government could be doing much more to sell the benefits of the TPP to the New Zealand public.

For instance, there is no high-level stakeholders group advising Trade Minister Tim Groser where businesses, agricultural lobbies, NGOs, professional advisers and union leaders regularly meet to chew through some of the thorny elements, consider New Zealand's defensive postures on areas such as intellectual property and inject their own solution-based thinking in a comprehensive fashion.

The only regular public advocacy comes from International Business Forum executive director Stephen Jacobi. There is little broad horizontal communication to the various constituencies.

This is not to denigrate New Zealand's trade negotiators. TPP lead negotiator David Walker is rated as world-class by his international peers. It is simply saying that the networks that publicly supported previous Governments' forays into establishing new trade deals have been relatively constrained.

When Labour leader David Cunliffe unveiled his new lineup, his decision to take foreign affairs off Goff and award it to David Shearer was generally seen as a demotion and an indication that the long-time Mt Roskill MP was on the way out.

But Goff is hardly treating the reshuffle that way. Nor is the Wellington bureaucracy, New Zealand's major exporting companies - nor (though they won't say publicly yet) the Government. They know they can do business with Goff.

The former Labour Trade Minister says there are big opportunities for New Zealand companies if they can gain access through TPP to even a tiny fraction of the giant US Government procurement market. There clearly have to be bottom lines for New Zealand's defensive interests on issues like Pharmac, but there will be significant gains for New Zealand's exporters if, for instance, tariffs on items such as yoghurt are reduced from their current levels of 250 per cent in Japan.

Several weeks ago US President Barack Obama wrote a private letter to Prime Minister John Key indicating he wanted to get the TPP negotiations effectively nailed this year.

Key relates that Obama sees TPP as an essential plank in the United States' continued economic recovery.

At next week's Apec leaders meeting in Bali, Key will speak to the CEOs' summit on multilateral developments in trade. It is a big opportunity to lift aspirations and make some salient observations before the TPP leaders present meet Obama to get a consensus on some difficult issues and buoy one another up for the difficult tradeoffs each country will have to make.

This week Obama reiterated that the US goal of completing TPP this year stands.

Goff can be expected to champion that goal (with the usual provisos).

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

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.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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