After the completion of exhaustive TPP talks in Atlanta, Trade Minister Tim Groser sounded anything but elated as he talked down the phone at 3 am.

"I feel like I used to feel after university exams," he said with a certain battle-weariness.

"I would be studying 20-hour days and I would be thinking 'I cannot wait for the exams to finish' and then when they finished I would feel slightly 'well, what do I do now?'"

The word "anti-climax" may have been on the tip of his tongue but his mind engaged for a second ahead of his mouth.


An anti-climax would not have been a flattering assessment for a Trade Minister who has devoted a good part of the past five years of his life to getting the Trans Pacific Partnership across the finish line.

But anti-climax isn't far from much of the initial reaction, especially when dairy turned out to be such a dud deal.

There wasn't anything in it to drive exporters into the street to dance a jig. Overall it could have been a lot better.

And in so far as the descriptions of the deal by Groser's officials can be accepted, the deal doesn't look like the work of the devil or people determined to surrender our sovereignty for 30 pieces of butter.

The result could have been have been a lot worse.

The way the TPP negotiation evolved was something of a bugger's muddle, not from the start, but from the crucial moment Japan joined in 2013.

To use Groser's ubiquitous percentages, that the was point at which New Zealand acquired a 75 per cent chance of being screwed on dairy.

That is the point at which the United States lowered its standards.


It was so desperate to get the wealthy consumer markets of Japan into the deal, that the commitment the US had made to a comprehensive deal covering all goods and services quietly evaporated.

Without Japan, the only FTAs the US would going to get from the TPP were from Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, New Zealand, and Chile - chicken-feed compared with getting gains from the world's third biggest economy.

Japan was granted access to the talks late in the process and reserving the right maintain "sanctuaries" around five categories including beef and dairy products.

The negotiation became heavily dominated by the Japan-US axis, all the while with the United States chairing the talks.

By 2014, after four years of negotiation, close observers were not sure whether the TPP was a series of bilateral negotiations or a multilateral agreement.

An independent chairman would have been fairer in hindsight and in the event of the deal being accepted by all parties, it should probably still happen given that other countries are lining up to join the deal.

Trade is in Groser's blood. He was once a career negotiator, then a minister-negotiator. But the TPP was Groser's swansong.

The way he describes the process, it sounds more like an extreme sport.

One of this team had had only six hours sleep over the past four days.

Another had received medical attention for exhaustion - and that's apparently not unusual.

Groser himself does not have to answer the 'well, what-do-I-do-now?' question.

After convincing the New Zealand public to accept it, over the next couple of months, it's an open secret he will be heading to Washington next year to become New Zealand's ambassador, or maybe an ambassador-negotiator.

There is little doubt he will be a presence on Hill in 2016, pressing for a flying pass on TPP.