New Zealand Isn’t Taking the Trans-Pacific Partnership Laying Down

They may be the second-smallest country in the talks, but Kiwis are up in arms over the rampant secrecy surrounding the deal.

Aug 18 2015, 1:49am

All photos by Robin Dianoux

"WE'RE ALL GETTIN FUCKED", one protest banner blared. "Trea$on for profit", reads another. A third was more straightforward: "DON'T SIGN THE TPPA".

The TPP—or the Trans-Pacific Partnership—is a massive trade agreement, encompassing almost a billion people in twelve countries. It's international news, all the time. And it's also, for the most part, a mysterious document. Its contents have been kept secret from basically everyone, except for a few business bigwigs and government officials.

All we've seen of the TPP is a couple of leaked chapters of the draft text, which is to say, not much. But even that has sparked grave fears about the TPP, ranging from concerns about intellectual property to health care costs to huge multinational companies suing countries for lost profits when countries pass legislation that's not to their liking.

New Zealand is the second-smallest country participating in the talks – after Brunei. Its population and gross domestic product are roughly the size of Oklahoma's (actually, to be fair, Oklahoma is marginally bigger on both counts). But that doesn't mean Kiwis are going to take the TPP lying down.

This weekend, thousands of people protested against the TPP in 16 New Zealand cities as part of a national week of TPP action. Activist and social worker Jen Olsen organised one of those protests, in Dunedin.

She says it's not just the "usual suspects" who turn up to a TPP protest. "We've got family people, older people, students, obviously all the activists, many ordinary people who don't normally turn out for protests. When they hear about the TPP, they don't like what they hear, and they want to get out and say so."

Families, older people, students, and activists turned out to protests the TPP.

That rabid interest in the TPP is a recent development, Olsen says. Even just a few months ago, talk of the TPP was a lot more scarce. Now, though, the country is anxious about what the trade agreement could mean.

On one trip to Christchurch, Olsen said, she mentioned the TPP to her taxi driver. "He knew all about it," she said

And earlier this month, as New Zealand prepared for its week of protests and TPP talks in Maui floundered, legal scholar Jane Kelsey co-filed a case in New Zealand's High Court that could force the government to hand over the secret trade agreement documents. Like many countries, New Zealand has an official information act, which guarantees civilians the right to know what their government is up to.

And the TPP, it so happens, is what the government is up to right now.

This is how OIA requests work in New Zealand. If you want to know something related to documents held by a government agency, you put in an OIA and wait 20 working days. If the government agency refuses to give the information to you, they have to have a reason why. And if you think that reason is bullshit, you can take the government agency to the ombudsman, and then, if you so choose, to court.

Kelsey put in an OIA to get the TPP documents. She, perhaps unsurprisingly, didn't get them. So now, she's taking the government to court over it. She said there have been previous legal cases in other countries that have had varying degrees of success in getting ahold of TPP-related documents. One case in the United States managed to unearth communications between the government and the pharmaceutical industry that were revelatory, and important.

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"In the United States, they have managed to secure, for example, the email communications between the pharmaceutical industry and the US trade representative, over their interaction around the texts and meetings and so on," she said.

"And those have been very illuminating, showing that not only have the industry had access to the text as cleared advisors, but they have played a very active role in making proposals to the US about what changes they should make to the text and so on."

There was another case in Australia, where TPP-related documents were released—albeit heavily redacted—and an active case in Japan, challenging the agreement on constitutional grounds.

But if Kelsey's successful in her legal challenge, it will be the first time one of the 12 negotiating countries hands over the text of the agreement. Success may seem unlikely, but Kelsey isn't deterred.

"It's claimed by the government that these agreements are always negotiated in secret. And as I have said for a number of years, that is not the case. Especially where you are dealing with plurilateral negotiations amongst a number of parties. There are a number of precedents where a number of the same parties involved in the TPP have released negotiating texts along the way."

The anti-counterfeiting trade agreement, or ACTA, was the most recent example of that, she said. The text was leaked, then ultimately released voluntarily, following the outcry over the leaked documents.

"And the ACTA text is very similar to a large part of the intellectual property chapter of the TPP. And at the time, the trade minister Tim Groser welcomed the release of the ACTA text as allowing the ability to have informed debate. If they can do it for the ACTA text, then surely they can do it for the TPP."

From Olsen's perspective, the protest action she's involved in and Kelsey's legal action go hand in hand. It's important to get information about the TPP out there, she says, because the more people learn about it, the more upset they get.

According to her, anti-TPP activists in New Zealand should focus on converting the conservative base of prime minister John Key, so the TPP would be seen as politically toxic, rather than a political boon.

The anti-TPP campaign may be a great political equaliser, but I still had a hard time believing any hardcore conservatives would get on board. So at the Dunedin protest this weekend, I set out to prove myself wrong, and find John Key's supporters among the marchers.

No luck, as it turned out. But I got closer than I'd expected—one man told me, somewhat abashedly, that he'd supported some previous conservative governments.

Not this one, though. John Key's government, he said, was a government of the past.

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