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We Asked Nicky Hager What the TPP Means for New Zealand Democracy

It's been called the "biggest deal of our generation" but has its lack of transparency undermined NZ's democratic process?
October 14, 2015, 11:20pm

Investigative journalist and best-selling author Nicky Hager feels New Zealand has been taken for a ride. Photo courtesy of Nicky Hager.

Before its signing last week, the only information anyone knew about the Trans Pacific Partnership was from leaks by unauthorised sources. Now, packaged as a free trade agreement with the power to affect over 40 percent of the world's economy, the TPP has been called the "biggest deal of our generation".

Kiwis turned out in huge numbers to protest against the highly controversial treaty, but to no avail. Details have now emerged that the TPP will see 93 percent of tariffs eliminated on New Zealand's exports, however the compromises are steep. Not only did the dairy industry not make the free trade cut, but patents have been extended for 20 years, and no restrictions have been placed on foreign property ownership.

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While these stipulations could all be seen as losses for the New Zealand economy, investigative journalist and expert on the unseen side of politics, Nicky Hager, says they aren't nearly as worrying as the government's apparent disregard for democracy over the TPP's five-year negotiation period. We gave him a call to see if this lack of transparency has undermined New Zealand's democratic process.

VICE: Obviously the TPP has been met with a lot of opposition, do you think its progression exhibits a lack of democratic control among the New Zealand public?

Nicky Hager: It is an exceptionally undemocratic decision. What stands out is that the whole deal and whole public management of the deal has been based around secrecy and public relations. By which I mean, through the whole process, everything the public needed to know about was kept secret—which means it was hard to independently check. Meanwhile everything they wanted the public to know about was suddenly made available. That was the public relations side. So in turn, the public has been really managed and taken for a ride the whole way through.

Is that the element that you find most concerning?
That's what I find most offensive about it. For someone who's interested, it's so hard to decide which of the different arguments are correct. All the way through, we were being told the reason that this is a good deal was because of dairy—that was the public relations line year after year. But when they didn't succeed on dairy, we're told dairy doesn't matter. This is treating the public as really stupid and it seems unfair to me that we're left with that level of information and people can't assess it for themselves because it's been so secret.

You mentioned dairy which was a big loss considering its impact in our economy—that aside, can you see any benefits coming from the deal's implementation? Do the gains outweigh the risks?
It's actually impossible for anybody to claim to be sure about that unless they're official experts. There are some people that say it's a free trade agreement, there some people that say it's an anti-free trade agreement supporting the monopoly of large companies against smaller companies in New Zealand. I think we're going to look back on this and realise we lost terribly in ways we never anticipated.

Why do you think there has been such limited public access? What do you think isn't being said?
If it was such good news, why couldn't we be informed sooner about the kind of fantastic things that were in it? I believe absolutely the reason why the public was only fed scraps of public relations was to push through something they believed to be unpopular.

When bits of the drafts were leaked, they weren't what you'd expect a trade deal to be about, like exchange and openness of trade. We were told in exchange for restrictions—which aren't free trade restrictions thereby enhancing the power of some sectors—we would have some huge benefits like dairy. These never arrived, so what kind of deal are we left with? We don't know at the moment.

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I think a lot of people found were confused by how the massive public backlash to the deal was never formally addressed. Was this something you foresaw?
All credit to New Zealanders for that, but they were debating a black box that no one could see inside. My strong impression as a political watcher was that no matter what the deal was or what people said about it, the government was always going to sign it. I believe it was a political gesture to the United States—a sign of political friendship. Again, that's another aspect that public was not told of or did not have a choice in.

So is this an example of New Zealand perhaps trying to be part of a big boys club? Will agreements like this get us into the big leagues?
You know, despite the government, we are becoming a more independent-thinking, Pacific-based country. But at the same time I think we do have people that want us to go back to the Anglo-Saxon club. That's another vision for where this country can go and I think this is out of sync with what many New Zealanders think.

Do you think if there were more transparency, we would have been more open to it?
The government stuck to the secrecy because there was something they didn't want people to see. Remember, for a while there was only a handful of people that even knew what the acronym stood for. I believe if it had been open, it would have become untenable for people to pass it.

I think the general consensus is that it's ironic that we have been able to vote on a flag change which is…

Well surface-level stuff, while something like this that's really representing our country overseas has been kept secret for a long time. Do you think this sets a precedent for the way the New Zealand government will interact with the public in the future?
Yes, but only a bad precedent. This is a treaty that affects everyone's lives and futures and we have no influence. We can't even change their minds afterwards. I think we will find more barriers and laws to push up against, that will only be discovered slowly and painfully in the years to come.

Follow the author on Twitter: @beehazlehurst