Keeping tabs on candidates for director general job the best way to protect New Zealand, and the world’s trade interests.

The revelation that New Zealand has used its external intelligence agency to tap the communications of candidates for the top job at the World Trade Organisation posed the question: is this a proper use of spies? The answer, I think, is hell yeah.

The director general of the WTO is not some cosy international status job for retired or defeated politicians, at least for New Zealand it is not. It is the cockpit for driving global rounds of negotiations towards a world in which people can buy and sell freely across national borders under fair trading laws and recognised property rights.

There is probably no international post more important to New Zealand's welfare, and probably no trade minister on the world stage more committed than Tim Groser to the WTO ideal. He devoted his previous diplomatic career to trade liberalisation and entered Parliament on National's list purely to pursue the project with political power.

If any of those seeking the director general's chair two years ago were capable of kicking the latest round back to life it was Groser, and member states knew it. That is said to be why he failed to make the short list.

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Sadly, a free and fair global trading environment is not a universal goal of governments, though nearly all pay lip service to it. The majority joined the newly formed WTO in the 1990s. It was the the one institution that had eluded the post-war creation of the United Nations and other foundations of international co-operation and a lasting peace.

The 1990s was a time of renewed hope. The Berlin wall had been torn down, the West had won the cold war, monetarism was defeating inflation and competitive markets were acknowledged to be the source of economic success.

But looking back, it was probably naive to think the countries signing up to the WTO in droves were all converts to free trade. Protection is always easier politics in countries that depend on declining industries or want to subsidise surplus agriculture for the sake of maintaining rural life.

The WTO is still in the grip of nations in no hurry to see progress. They treat trade talks as a contest of reluctant concessions in which it is better to stall and stymie agreements than to upset protected constituencies. They don't admit this openly, nor do their candidates for the WTO director's chair.

If tapping their internet traffic can flush out their real intentions, I'm all for it. The surveillance is certainly legal. The GCSB's legislation gives the bureau three stated objectives: the national security of New Zealand, the international relations and wellbeing of New Zealand, and the economic wellbeing of New Zealand.

The last would certainly be served by the election of a good WTO director. Arguably New Zealand's international relations are less well served if the espionage is made public. This week's Snowden drop came just as John Key was about to sign a free trade agreement with South Korea, whose candidate was one of the targets, and it didn't sabotage the deal.

It was clear in the Herald's report that the surveillance continued after Groser had missed the cut. The intelligence on other candidates might have been widely shared and appreciated by countries that share New Zealand's free trade credentials.

There may be precious few of them but with the WTO Doha Round stalled they are making progress on other fronts. Regional and bilateral free trade agreements can be steps in the right direction if they are open to all countries willing to embrace WTO ideals.

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New Zealand did the world's first bilateral treaty with China and, along with Singapore, Chile and Brunei, formed the regional pact that has grown into the hemispheric Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal.

The TPP is now the big game in global trade liberalisation, offering hopes of agreement on intellectual property rights, investment rights, biosecurity and much else besides trade in all goods and services. It is being watched closely by Europe and the rest of the world and fiercely opposed by those who claim that it will restrict democratic rights.

It cannot restrict the power of governments to do anything they like, but if they inflict unreasonable damage on a private investment the investor could seek damages from an international tribunal. Sounds fair to me.

It's a little chilling to read Jane Kelsey's criticism of the latest draft investment treaty yesterday. "There is no agreement on restricting capital flows in a financial crisis," she wrote. That is somebody's right to withdraw their own money should New Zealand ever be governed like, say, Brazil, whose currency fell with a thud last week.

A candidate from Brazil got the job at the WTO's magnificent palace at Geneva. Sometime later he was moved by reports of progress in the TPP to announce a new Doha initiative, but nothing happened.