John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Big trade deal all over bar the shouting

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Protesters will beseige the TPP signing despite its terms being less favourable to US interests than they feared.
If the Trans-Pacific Partnership can be signed here with due ceremony Helen Clark deserves a place of honour. Photo / UN
If the Trans-Pacific Partnership can be signed here with due ceremony Helen Clark deserves a place of honour. Photo / UN

If the Trans-Pacific Partnership can be signed here with due ceremony Helen Clark deserves a place of honour. So does Phil Goff, trade minister when a comprehensive agreement embracing the United States and the rest of the Pacific rim was just a gleam in the eye of New Zealand, Singapore, Chile and Brunei.

Our diplomats called it the "P4" in those days. I first heard of it from the previous prime minister on one of her visits to the Herald. The project had grown out of her government's free trade agreement with Singapore which was designed for others to join on the same terms. It had become the P3 and now it was the P4. I saw the gleam.

Clark has never recoiled from the idea, she was good enough to give a public declaration of support for the TPP when John Key met her at the United Nations last year during his final bid to get the deal done.

I don't suppose she or Goff are anxious to attend the signing. It is bound to attract the mother of all protests, which will finally discredit those who have been marching in the streets, for the text has been out for two months and it has become clear it is not the sell-out to the US they were led to expect.

The agreement runs to 6000 pages of difficult legal and technical references, but law professor Jane Kelsey has been studying trade position papers for years and I've been waiting for her to find something explosive in the fine print. She provided a conclusion in a column published in this paper on Thursday.

Whereas previously she had feared the US would gets its way on practically every issue, now she hopes and expects the deal will be rejected by the US Congress because the terms finally agreed are not very favourable to the US after all.

A World Bank assessment this week came to the same conclusion. That will not help its reception in the Congress but professional bodies in this country ought to acknowledge it is not the spectre they had been given to expect. Pharmac is going to be okay. The US has not got its way on pharmaceutical protection periods. Our IT innovation appears to be under no more pressure from US patent law than it was before.

Their only remaining concern may be investors' rights to sue for compensation in independent international tribunals if a government's action unreasonably reduces the value of an investment. But that is not new, disputes tribunals were part of post-war international trade rules, and the principle is perfectly reasonable.

It is unlikely any government New Zealanders would elect, whether led by National or Labour, would need to be taken to a tribunal. They would expect to compensate an investor for a policy change the investor could not reasonably have foreseen. I don't know what kind of government protesters have in mind when they call the TPP's dispute provisions a threat to "democracy". Or maybe I do.

Their noise will be a fitting backdrop for the occasion of the signing, a reminder of how hard the politics of trade negotiations can be. I wonder if it would have been easier for a Labour Government once the US came into the TPP.

Back when it started, the Doha round had stalled and the Bush Administration was doing free trade agreements mostly for strategic reasons, with members of its "coalition of the willing" in Iraq and moderate Muslim countries it wanted to keep onside. New Zealand was not on the list. But our leading trade diplomats, notably Tim Groser, were pushing for something better - a comprehensive Pacific agreement that would pick up the batten dropped at Doha.

The US was not interested until President Obama had come to power. His interests were no less strategic than Bush's. TPP suited Obama's "pivot to Asia", and it will probably pass the Congress in the end for strategic reasons too, since China is not in. But to get this far is a remarkable achievement.

The fact that the signing will be done in New Zealand is plain testament to the driving role this country has played.

That has not always been clear in recent years, particularly once Japan came in over New Zealand's objections.

But behind the scenes, Groser and Key must have been more effective than they can publicly say. Key, elected in the same week as Obama, established an important personal rapport. At times when the talks failed to reach predicted agreement and Key was asked whether he still thought the TPP would succeed, he'd say, "I think so. Obama wants to do it."

Their trade ministers will do the signing. I hope the noise is deafening. This is a big deal.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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