barry coates trade
Green Party trade spokesperson Barry Coates speaks at a trade rally outside Parliament

Free trade backers are simply out of touch

Are the backers of free trade out of touch with public opinion? This was the question asked when the Chartered Accountants launched their Future of Trade study. I was astonished by the answer in a room of free trade enthusiasts and accountants. 62% said the backers of free trade are out of touch!

This echoes the massive public opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). I was coordinator of the It’s Our Future campaign when over 30,000 people marched down Queen Street, and more than half of the New Zealand public opposed the TPPA in a TV3/Reid Research  poll.

In response to public opposition over the TPPA, the Minister for Trade, Todd McClay promised a ‘trade refresh’. But this turned out to be another empty consultation, reflecting the government’s patronising approach. They said that the public just doesn’t understand the benefits of agreements like the TPPA.

Green Party trade spokesperson Barry Coates at a trade rally outside Parliament

The Prime Minister, Bill English, launched the government’s new trade ‘strategy’ on 24 March. It aims for more free trade agreements (FTAs) and commits more money to be spent on negotiating trade agreements. The benefits are exaggerated. The main benefit the government foresees come from removing ‘non-tariff barriers’, but these are often confused with removing legitimate regulation.

New Zealanders march against the TPPA on 4 February 2016

The main shortcoming is that the government’s policy fails to address the main focus of the new generation of trade agreements – restrictions on the powers of government to regulate in the public interest. The thousands of Kiwis who wrote letters and submissions against the TPPA pointed out that the TPPA would undermine our local economy, our rights and our sovereignty. We should never allow foreign multinationals to sue our government for laws that elevate our national interest over their profits. Research reports show that trade agreements like the TPPA benefit foreign corporations and some exporters, but not most New Zealanders.

Being against these trade agreements isn’t the same as being against trade. It is widely accepted that New Zealand needs to trade with other countries. But a growing number of Kiwis are against trade agreements that impose higher costs on to consumers for patents, raise the cost of artistic works and books through longer copyright periods, give foreign corporations advantages over our small businesses, undermine te Tiriti rights, and override environment protection, climate change policies, consumer regulations, and workers’ rights.

The balance of our trade agreements is wrong. These agreements give privileges to global companies over our SMEs and our local economy. This is unfair and unsustainable, especially in an era of climate change. And these agreements put profits ahead of our environment, our social equality, and other values. We need a fundamental change to trade policy.

It is not only the public who are against these agreements. Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand surveyed 600 New Zealand businesses. 72% of the businesses said that free trade agreements didn’t benefit their business. They want real benefits like streamlined customs processes, online platforms and above all, action on the environment to support our clean green reputation.

The government’s target of increasing exports to 40% of GDP is failing. Instead of rising, the proportion of exports is actually falling. More FTAs aren’t the answer. We need a new strategy that adds value to our commodities, strengthens innovation and skills, and makes sustainability a reality.

The Green Party supports fair and sustainable trade. We are calling for better trade and investment agreements which respect our democracy, support the local economy, promote sustainable business and uphold rights for workers and te Tiriti. We should be seeking to promote our exports and improve our access to overseas markets in ways that are consistent with the long-term interests of all New Zealanders.