Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Labour’s TPP disaster

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Labour Party leader Andrew Little attracted only five percent support in the recent TVNZ leadership poll.

Political Roundup by Dr Bryce Edwards.

Dr Bryce Edwards.
Dr Bryce Edwards.

What does Labour think about the TPP? No one seems to know. The party is hoping to appease both critics and opponents of the deal, but its mixed messages are drawing criticism from all sides.

The National Government was supposed to be the one under scrutiny in the aftermath of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. Labour had hoped and expected that the controversial deal would be bad news for a Government that would have trouble selling all the “dead rats” and very limited wins for New Zealand in the agreement. Instead, however, it’s Labour that is bleeding over the TPP.

The charge against Labour is that it’s being weak, divided, or just disingenuous in its TPP stance. The party’s explanation for its mixed messages is that it can’t make any decisions until it has more detail doesn’t seem to be washing with many. And now its supposedly non-negotiable bottom lines over TPP are suddenly appearing to be rather flexible.

Labour’s mixed messages

The strongest criticism of Labour’s ambiguous stance is from TV3’s Patrick Gower, who says “Labour wants to try and trick its base supporters that it is still against the TPP, but let the public think it is for it.  It really is untenable for Labour to refuse to say either way” – see his colourfully-worded column, Labour swallowing TPP rats

Gower explains that “Labour has painted itself into a corner” with its clever attempt to justify its ambiguous position, but suggests that this was always a charade: “Either Labour’s non-negotiable bottom lines were a load of codswallop, or it will not support the TPP”. He predicts “that Labour will continue to play out this silly game for a while before finally giving its support to TPP”. 

The Herald’s Audrey Young has a similar forecast: “My prediction is that Labour will spend the next month sounding as though it opposes the TPP, pointing out where it could have been better, condemning the Government for not getting a perfect deal, but end up supporting it. In the process it will be sending mixed messages” – see: Vote on trade deal will test Labour philosophy

According to Labour supporter Phil Quin, writing in the Herald today, his party’s stance is all about “having, as well as eating, one’s cake” – see: TPP threats cast doubt on Labour’s capacity to govern.

For Quin, Labour’s whole approach to the TPP is based on opportunism rather than principles: “Andrew Little’s Labour has crafted a policy that suffers from being too clever by half, grounded in a hazy matrix of dubious political calculations but utterly devoid of any discernible principle. In a proxy war between those who hate capitalism and those who hate regulation, Labour has, of its own volition, taken up occupancy in a no-man’s land of clumsy opportunism.”

Labour’s position to retain the TPP but flout it

Labour has obviously sought to adopt stances in which it can both support the TPP and oppose elements of it. Its latest technique is to say that it would retain the TPP when it got into government again, but flout some elements of it. This attempt to have it both ways has brought criticism from all sides. 

Labour’s stance of “flouting” the agreement was apparent right from the day the agreement was announced, with Jacinda Ardern stating “When we’re in Government we’ll continue to legislate as we would and we’ll face the consequences” – see Benn Bathgate’s Labour to carry on regardless of TPPA – Ardern

This position was elaborated on by Little this week on Radio New Zealand: “The question now for us is what happens when we are in government… Although any party has the ability on six months’ notice to walk away from the agreement, from New Zealand’s point of view, that’d be a pretty serious call to make… I think it is unlikely: we’ve got what we’ve got, we’re now committed to it because the National Government has made us committed to it, [and] we will deal with that when we are in government” – quoted in the news report: Labour would stick to ban on foreign house buyers despite TPPA

One Labour Party activist has written a scathing blog post on The Standard accusing the party of both selling out but also lacking credibility in the way it handles international relations – see: Labour’s latest TPP position

According to the activist, “Labour has shown the entire world that their negotiating “bottom lines” are as weak as tissue paper. And that less than 3 months worth of mild pressure is enough to make Andrew Little fold like a leaf on the party’s publicly stated “bottom lines.” 

Furthermore, “although Labour can talk a tough talk now and then, when it boils down to it, Labour is a push over when it comes to its own ‘bottom lines’.  Any respect in those circles for Labour as a credible negotiator and reliable independent partner has gone straight down the tubes.  What a costly and damaging day it has been for Labour’s reputation.”

An even more damning critique is made by Phil Quin who says if Labour implemented such a policy, it would “constitute the most reckless act by any New Zealand government of the post-Muldoon era”, and that it “called into question Labour’s capacity to govern responsibly” – see: TPP threats cast doubt on Labour’s capacity to govern.

Voices from the right are equally critical of Labour’s intention to flout an agreement. Blogger David Farrar questions Little’s apparent new approach of picking and choosing which elements of international treaties it would honour: “Does he also think NZ should flout all the UN conventions we have signed, if he deems it not in our best interests? Does he think Iran should flout the deal they brokered on not developing nuclear weapons, if the Supreme Leader deems it not in their best interests?  Does Little think the other TPP countries should simply ignore provisions of an agreement they don’t like? Does he think Australia should ignore the WTO ruling and ban our apple imports again?  This is pathetic sophistry from Labour. You can not have a policy saying we will not withdraw from TPP but will ignore parts we want to” – see: Labour’s latest TPP position

See also today’s Southland Times editorial, Labour’s weird approach to TPP deal, which says that the party has “has commitment issues”. 

Labour’s shift away from globalism

It was only a few years ago that Labour was all in favour of any type of “free trade deals”, and of course in government initiated many, including the China-NZ deal, as well as the TPP negotiations. As Helen Clark has made clear with her strong support of the TPP, Labour’s new stance is a deviation from where the party has been in recent decades. 

Audrey Young has explained that Labour quickly shifted last year from being favourable towards such free trade and corporate agreements to a more neutral position – see: Vote on trade deal will test Labour philosophy.

Young’s article also explains how Labour has played a key role in shifting public opinion away from a default position of supporting such deals, and she points to recent opinion poll material: “In the Herald’s DigiPoll survey in August, only 22.9 per cent said they supported it generally on the basis that New Zealand’s economic well-being depended on increased trade with the world; 31.3 per cent opposed it on the basis of investor-state dispute procedures and 45 per cent had no view.”

Labour’s shift has clearly coincided with growing public discontent about economic inequality and corporate dominance in the post-global financial crisis era. In recent years much of the political left has used the TPP and globalisation as a proxy (or lightning rod) for channelling such concerns. 

This is outlined in Liam Dann’s very thoughtful column, Backing a trade deal has never been so socially awkward. He says that “Supporting trade deals has become extremely socially awkward.  Like a sensible pair of loose fit jeans, it definitely isn’t cool these days.  It’s not like it was back in 2008 when Helen Clark was signing the China Free Trade Agreement.  Maybe it’s all Facebook’s fault.  For the past year my Facebook feed has been a hotbed of anti-TPP posts and memes.  Some raise reasonable concerns about the cost of drugs or intellectual property law but others pitch the whole thing as if it is an attempt by the evil empire to secretly build a Death Star… But for the majority of concerned social media clickers, there just seems to be a lot of general ill-feeling about increasing corporate control over our lives. That’s not unreasonable.  The global financial crisis destroyed wealth and exaggerated inequalities, the internet is disrupting the workplace and its encroachment on personal privacy worries people.”

Not surprisingly, many on the left of Labour have therefore championed the anti-TPP movement. And as Newstalk ZB’s Felix Marwick points out, when Andrew Little “ran for the party’s leadership after the 2014 election disaster he made a deliberate point of criticising the TPP and making arguments against it” – see: How will Labour respond to TPP? Marwick says that MPs such as “Ruth Dyson, Megan Woods, and Clare Curran, all participated in anti-TPP rallies in August”.

But in the end it appears this concentration on the TPP may have been a mistaken target for both the left and Labour, especially since the end result has proven to be milder than expected. Any on going opposition to the TPP is likely to be from the more nationalistic and protectionist elements in society – ironically exemplified by figures on the right such as US presidential candidate Donald Trump. 

Labour’s conundrum over the TPP

For many on the left, Labour’s softness on the TPP is an opportunity missed. Chris Trotter argues that if Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First put forward a united front against the agreement, then they would be well positioned to fight and win the next election as “an anti-TPP coalition” – see: Labour’s TPP choice could swing election

Trotter says: “The 2017 election, if Labour, the Greens and NZ First box clever, can thus become a contest between competing visions. The TPP’s vision of an economy that’s managed for powerful business interests; and the progressive Opposition’s vision of an economy that works for people.”

When Trotter’s dream of an anti-TPP united front was disrupted this week, he blogged about this missed opportunity – see: Flouting The Rules: Why has Andrew Little rejected a winning TPPA strategy for a guaranteed loser? Trotter suggests that Labour may no longer be “committed to meaningful social and economic change”.

Finally, how divided is Labour over the TPP? Not surprisingly, rightwing pundit Matthew Hooton has a controversial view on this, and suggests a serious problem is developing within the party – see his must-read column, Labour lurches to the extreme left over TPP, which has been temporarily unlocked on the NBR website. And for balance, see Sam Sachdeva’s Labour’s Annette King denies internal rift over TPPA deal

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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