Country not convinced a deal would have plenty of upside.

New Zealanders are so deeply polarised on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that even if a good deal is finally negotiated it will take a major sales job on the Government's behalf so it's not viewed as a con job by many Kiwis.

This polarisation - which would be apparent to the Government's pollsters - may have been behind why John Key and Tim Groser stepped up the rhetoric on the pact this week.

Key used a sympathetic audience at Amcham's 50th anniversary celebrations in Auckland to stake out New Zealand's position on TPP and try to take the sting out of some of the wilder accusations which have gained currency in the absence of in-depth briefing from the Government side.

Groser's diplomacy has been more nuanced. This is not surprising given he is heading off to Kuala Lumpur this weekend for an Asean meeting where a Southeast Asian group-led meeting will endeavour to make more progress on the rival Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in which China is also a participant.


At the Amcham dinner Key said he would be concerned if the deal was not done by Christmas. He said it was really down to three or four leaders who could make it happen; the most influential by a significant margin is President Barack Obama.

It's Key's contention that Obama sees the deal as forming part of his presidential legacy along with the Iran deal and Obamacare, and was prepared to devote political capital to get it across the line.

The Prime Minister pointed to the many myths about the TPP and claimed the Government had its hands tied behind its back and couldn't talk about the detail.

But he was upbeat about the possibility of finally gaining greater access to the 300 million-plus American consumer market after NZ had tried for 40 years to get an FTA with the US.

TPP will not formally be on the agenda in Malaysia. But there is expected to be a working meeting of ministerial representatives from those nations present which are from the 12-strong Asia Pacific grouping negotiating TPP.

US Trade Representative Mike Froman will also be in Malaysia and will meet key TPP players.

From Groser's perspective it's the first chance at political level - since the recent Maui ministerial meeting - to take stock of what needs to be done to finalise the TPP.

Groser emphasises there is an underlying consensus on everything but three "hard nuts".

"There are only three rocks standing like Barrett's reef at the entrance to Wellington harbour," he says.

In essence they are the dairy and auto chapters of the TPP agreement and a couple of hard areas to crack through involving data exclusivity for biologics.

"This has got to be done soon to avoid Doha Syndrome - where negotiations just drag on and on."

Irrespective, it will be a balancing act.

The RCEP negotiations are up against a deadline to wrap up that deal by the end of the year. The agreement is understood to be less prescriptive than the TPP and there are difficulties from the different levels of economic development among the negotiating nations.

RCEP involves the 10 Asean member nations and six other free-trade agreement partners - Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. It does not include the US.

Both RCEP and TPP are seen as platforms to forge closer economic integration in the Asia Pacific through removing barriers to trade and investment.

The TPP involves Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam and the United States.

Within officialdom there is concern that the bipartisan consensus on trade has come under too much pressure.

It's not quite fractured, but negotiators no longer go into white-knuckle talks with the same confidence as in previous years.

Some of the TPP opposition has assisted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade negotiators by testing where the bounds of public opinion lie. The negotiators have consulted various constituencies.

But the Cabinet has failed to mount a consistent story to convince middle New Zealand that a successful deal will have plenty of upside and that further trade liberalisation is in New Zealand's interests.

A full political campaign has not yet been mounted at retail level. Associate Trade Minister Todd McClay has been deputised by Groser to fill that vacuum but there is much more to be done.

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