Trade Minister Todd McClay was in Whanganui on Tuesday to talk the Trans Pacific Partnership with the Whanganui Chamber of Commerce (WCC).
Before the evening meeting at Stellar Restaurant, Mr McClay and Whanganui MP Chester Borrows visited Pacific Helmets, Q-West boat builders and met members of Whanganui District Council.
The minister said the meeting with council members had been positive and deputy mayor Hamish McDouall had asked how the council might work with the community to better understand the TPP.
His visit was part of a nationwide information tour by government MPs to promote the agreement and hear what business owners have to say.
Mr McClay signed the agreement in February amid strong protests outside Auckland's SkyCity.
"I am sensing that the public is becoming more comfortable with TPP and much of the heat seems to have gone out of the opposition to it," he said.
The minister said the partnership between New Zealand, Australia, Chile, Peru, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Canada, US, Mexico and Japan will save New Zealand exporters an estimated $9.6 million in tariffs each year.
Now that the partnership agreement has been signed, Mr McClay said the ratification process has begun and it is important that everyone who wants to have a say on the TPP should be heard. A parliamentary trade committee with cross-party representation will consider submissions regarding the TPP.
Chamber of Commerce member Rex McKinnon asked Mr McClay about the implications for pharmaceuticals in New Zealand under the agreement. "The Pharmac model is not up for negotiation," said Mr McClay. "The US wanted to extend the patents on new medicines to 12 years but we want to stick with the current legislation which allows a maximum of eight years."
WCC chairwoman Raewyn Overton-Stuart asked about the implications for small and medium business enterprises and whether they will be better off under TPP. The minister said the TPP could open up online platforms for smaller businesses to increase export sales and mentioned the Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba.
"We recently met with the owner and the trade figures are phenomenal - it is like Trade Me on steroids," he said.
Mr McClay said he understands that there are some very genuine concerns about the TPP that need addressing and said there will be vital discussions during the year ahead. "People are concerned about loss of sovereignty and we need to acknowledge that."
He said the Labour government's signing of the Free Trade Agreement with China in 2008 raised similar concerns and he praised ex-Prime Minister Helen Clark and her government for their handling of the negotiations.