Last Thursday, the final sitting day of Parliament, the Government announced that Cabinet has endorsed the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, minus the United States but with the text effectively unchanged.
According to Trade Minister Todd McClay, the 11 remaining parties have agreed to this, although statements from some of them suggest otherwise. Chief negotiators are meeting again in Sydney this week, apparently to prepare a final announcement for ministers on the margins of Apec in Vietnam in November.
The timing of last week's announcement is hardly a coincidence. These talks have been taking place all year. The Government has worked very hard to keep them under the radar and off the election agenda.
The last meeting of the TPP of 11 was in Japan a month ago. Did the Minister really not know until the last day of Parliament that other parties had agreed to a "no changes to the TPP text" position? Or did he delay the announcement so that the many parties who opposed the original TPP for a variety of reasons could not ask him embarrassing questions in the House?
And there are plenty of embarrassing questions. Top of the list is how a deal that was sold as a backdoor way to achieve a free trade agreement with the US is now a great deal without the US, but with all the concessions New Zealand reluctantly made to get better access to American markets?
US corporations are going to get the benefit of rules that increase the price of medicine, impose longer copyright terms, prohibit requirements to hold data in the country, restrict state-owned enterprises, and more, without the US making any concessions to New Zealand in return.
The next question is what New Zealand stands to gain from this? McClay told the House the TPPA-11 will generate "tens of thousands of jobs and billions for our economy".
He gave more detail in a press release, saying independent economic modelling shows TPP-11 "could add $2.5 billion annually to our economy (and) save New Zealand companies $222 million a year in tariffs".
But there is nothing to support the Minister's claims on the ministry website. Conveniently, he said that no national interest analysis would be released until the deal was tabled in Parliament. It is unlikely to be convincing when it arrives. The previous national interest analysis, prepared by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and signed off by the Minister, was deeply flawed.
Submissions identified a series of errors and implausible assumptions, as the minority reports from Labour and the Greens pointed out.
Surely Parliament should have the opportunity to scrutinise the revised rationale for proceeding with the same agreement but without the largest player in the game?
Especially embarrassing for the Minister, the modelling the Government previously relied on assumed no change to employment and projected that the benefits of tariff reductions were more likely to go to consumers overseas rather than to New Zealanders. Other modelling from Tufts University projected reduced employment and increased inequality.
Even if the Minister's claim of $222m "tariff savings" delivered in several decades time (which he also failed to mention) stood up to scrutiny, it is still not clear that the economic benefits would exceed the costs, let alone all the other impacts and risks to environment, food safety, labour rights, te Tiriti rights, loss of right to regulate, and more.
Significantly, the Prime Minister has admitted to Inside US Trade that a key motivation for still proceeding with the TPPA-11 is to rescue the free trade and investment model itself - something that is deeply unpopular and critical to debate in this election period.
Given the pending election, perhaps the most important question is whether the Minister has explained to the other 10 countries that a future New Zealand government may not ratify the TPP-11?
Or is the National Government deliberately trying to railroad a future government that might comprise Labour, New Zealand First, the Greens and the Maori party, who all opposed the original TPP agreement and have all reiterated that they do not support its resurrection in the form of the TPPA-11?
Those parties, the New Zealand electorate, and our democratic process, deserve better.
- Jane Kelsey is a professor of law at the University of Auckland.