There was always something a bit half-hearted about Labour’s opposition to the TPP.
“Labour is a party of free trade,” then-leader Andrew Little wrote in a blog, posted two years ago.
“But the TPPA isn’t just a free trade agreement. It goes way beyond free trade.”
If you remember, it took Little and his caucus some weeks to reach that conclusion. Not everyone (Phil Goff and David Shearer) was on board.
So it’s with some antinomy that it will be a Labour-led Government that signs up to the new CPTPP in six weeks.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. Labour (under Helen Clark) was one of the original negotiating parties, back in 2005 when it began life as the ‘P4’.
Labour will argue that their more recent position was not blanket opposition. They did fine-tune their objections to the secrecy surrounding the negotiations, threats to Pharmac, concerns that corporations could sue the Government and impediments to banning foreign buyers purchasing land.
But, Little went beyond this. “The deal is worth less to New Zealand than the [then National] government touted…The deal on dairy is hopeless, meat is a little better and the rest amounts to not much considering it is an agreement covering 800 million consumers and 40 per cent of the world's GDP.”
And, he said, the deal was “an attack on democracy.”
Today Labour and NZ First’s Winston Peters argue that the new Government has negotiated away these concerns about the deal National signed up to. The CPTPP is not perfect, but a “vast improvement,” PM Jacinda Ardern said yesterday.
Critics say these changes to the text are token, at best. Most notably, the Greens and trenchant TPP opponent Jane Kelsey argue that while the investor state dispute clauses are suspended, they were not completely removed. Those provisions could be triggered if the US decides to re-join. Small business leaders also say the deal benefits large corporations, not them.
Thousands marched in the streets against the TPP. Their fears were less about the devil details of the pact, but a backlash against globalisation, inequality and job insecurity.
Labour – at that point tanking in the opinion polls – grasped at a chance to galvanise its support base. The leadership’s opposition to the TPP was not ideological, which is why it has had no problem walking it back and signing up to the new deal.
That’s what you do in Opposition. Parties can afford to be more uncompromising, more black-and-white in their positions. In Government, they’re required to be more flexible.
And while some on the Left will be disappointed at the TPP’s resurrection, they are riding on too much of a high to really punish Labour for it.
It’s with this lens that you should view the recent stance of Bill English on Te Reo Maori and Waitangi.
Mr English can’t pretend he doesn’t care about the Maori language. His respect for te reo was demonstrated when he spoke fluently for three minutes without notes at last year’s Ratana commemorations.
But he’s now not courting Maoridom. National need to keep their base angry and hungry for power and a little low-level race-baiting is a cheap and easy trick. Staying as far away from the Far North as he can get on Waitangi Day reinforces that message.
In Opposition, subtle and nuanced positions don’t work: you’ve got to shout louder and harder to hold the media’s attention. And in the reality of Government, only compromise and flexibility will get things done.