Fran O’Sullivan: Sceptics unmoved by spirit of glasnost

By Fran O’Sullivan, New Zealand Herald | June 16, 2016

Predictably NZ’s free trade sceptics – including the ubiquitous Jane Kelsey – were not impressed with Todd McClay’s effort to inject a spirit of glasnost into the RCEP negotiations in Auckland this week.

They have a point.

McClay had urged critics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership to “leave your protests and your placards outside and come and join the conversation” on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The sceptics had thought they were to be “consulted” – invited into the tent to make a meaningful contribution on RCEP; the trade minister instead offered “engagement”.

They were underwhelmed. They felt they were part of a spin exercise.

But McClay was hopeful he had taken a step towards restoring a sensible “conversation” on trade issues in New Zealand.

A stakeholder session held at Sky City Convention Centre on Tuesday afternoon was a relatively anodyne affair according to reliable reports.

Talks on the RCEP (effectively a trade deal between the 10 Asean nations plus China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand) had already reached a critical point. Offers were tabled ahead of the Auckland meeting. There would surely have been the opportunity to share some detailed perspectives?

But advisories from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were sent out far too late.

Obvious journalist candidates (like myself) were also left off the list – an indication perhaps that a ministry, which has spend years fobbing off requests for detail, has yet to make the switch to the climate of new openness that the Minister of Trade wants to introduce to the trade arena.

Stephen Jacobi – who leads the NZ International Business Forum – described the stakeholder session with RCEP negotiators as an opportunity for people with different views on the value and impact of trade agreements to hear about latest developments and ask questions.

The session was chaired by Simon Draper, executive director of Asia New Zealand and featured speakers from a number of economies including the Indonesia chair of the Trade Negotiations Committee and lead negotiators from New Zealand, the Philippines and Singapore.

According to Jacobi, around 45 representatives of business and civil society attended. After general presentations, the opportunity was given to all present to make statements. The civil society representatives spoke first, welcoming the session but pointing out politely but firmly that insufficient time had been made available.

A number of points – mostly critical – were made in relation to investor state dispute settlement, the lack of transparency in the negotiating process, the impact on developing economies, the impact on health and the direction of proposed intellectual property and services rules.

Business representatives followed also welcoming the opportunity and making statements about the importance of trade for business, the need for RCEP to deliver ambitious and comprehensive tariff elimination, the importance of liberalisation for agriculture, the need to address non-tariff barriers and other issues relevant to small business including rules of origin and the need to liberalise trade in services.

Jacobi concluded that the tone of the meeting was respectful, all speakers were polite and kept to time by the chairman who extended the session to make sure everyone had their say.

“Take the Con out of Consultation” was Barry Coates’ response. Coates is spokesperson for It’s Our Future – a campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and what he claims are “predatory trade agreements.” Coates spent 10 years heading up Oxfam in New Zealand and was on the reference list that the earlier Labour Government consulted on trade agreements like the path-breaking bilateral China free trade deal.

To Coates what McClay and his officials offered up was simply a pretence – all spin and no substance.

“If the government was serious about consulting, they would hold a real dialogue, not just a parade of speakers limited to one or two minutes,” he said.

Contrast this to the TPP stakeholders’ day which was held in December 2012 when New Zealand hosted a negotiating round in Auckland. As I wrote at the time it was rather like being involved in a mad-cap version of speed-dating with less-than-optimal results.

If the government was serious about consulting, they would hold a real dialogue, not just a parade of speakers limited to one or two minutes.

There were close on 80 presentations in four separate streams. All these in just over five hours with stakeholders and media zooming off like a giant locust swarm “whenever word got out (usually via text) that someone was saying something particularly insightful – or inciteful, for that matter”.

The topics included intellectual property, labour, environment, market access, and
investment and a briefing with most of the chief TPP negotiators chaired by NZ’s David Walker.

It was imperfect but had more depth than this week’s effort.

It is important that if McClay is to distinguish his style from that of his predecessor Tim Groser that he makes good on his sentiment.

At a later livecast session with McClay and NZ’s chief RCEP negotiator Mark Trainor, Coates made the telling claim that when it came to TPP, thousands of submissions were made into the Select Committee process and then ignored in the Committee’s report.

Both Coates and Kelsey say they welcome a real dialogue.

They were concerned that the negotiators were to have a separate session with business representatives yesterday.

Kelsey’s message was direct: “If you don’t want RCEP to turn into another TPP disaster for the government, open this process for effective input and release the negotiating texts now.”

But the stipulation that the draft negotiations document for RCEP should be made public is not going to fly.

For MFAT just holding the public livestream session was an act of courage.

The upshot is that the RCEP negotiations will continue against a background where leaks – not texts – provide the grist for public debate.

 

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