The TPP roadshow kicked off in Auckland yesterday with luxury muffins and pointed questions at an inner city Auckland hotel. Former Herald editor-in-chief Tim Murphy takes in the explanatory slides and the giggling infiltrators.
The real TPP roadshow occurred on intersections and motorway on-ramps about four weeks ago. There was noise, blood and guts. The public noticed.
Today’s is the sanitised version, behind four security checks in the fading charm of the Rendezvous Hotel on Mayoral Drive. Some of the same protesters are here, on the street corner and on the hotel driveway looking for the CR number plate of a Crown car carrying Trade Negotiations Minister Todd McClay.
They’re too late. He’s already inside, talking through the day’s runsheet with MC Sean Plunket.
It’s all very low key. It’s muggy and the week hasn’t started yet.
One placard holder, a teacher, has slipped away from school and down the road to make that point: “Let’s consult widely with the public. How about on a Monday morning when everyone is at work? Yeah right!”
Standing with her is, as it happens, my cousin, Dr Fiona McLean (fitting her anti-TPP duties in before a family one and her GP job) and waving a sign saying: “TPPA ‘Spin’ Show NOT Road Show”. Fiona was on an intersection a few weeks ago. She asks if I think the government has ‘”bought off the media” on this issue. I think not. For the most part the TPP is a turn-off all on its own.
Two Canadian joggers, from Nova Scotia going by their shirts, stop to chat. “Bless your hearts for being out here,” the guy says, adding that the TPP serves big business and a country “that shall not be named”.
Inside the hotel, about 150 people assemble for the morning session in which McClay and the chief New Zealand negotiator, David Walker, will speak and then take questions. It’s a mixed group – bureaucrats, Penny Bright, real estate guys, accountants, a timber man and several smiling young people.
When McClay, who seemed to come out of nowhere to replace Tim Groser as our trade negotiations minister, ends his broad brush pep talk someone gives out a little “woo hoo”. Who would have thought? Todd, son of the Bolger-era National MP Roger McClay and assumed to be a bit goofy like his Dad, getting a cheer at his first roadshow.
As Walker gets up to speak, he, too, gets a little yelp of support. Heads turn. Tall, bearded and grey-suited trade negotiators do not win yelps. Undeterred, Walker moves into his work, outlining the 12 nations of the TPP, keen to clear up what TPP “is, and what it is not”. He traces on a graph with a series of growing circles the history of the trade deal, starting as a CEP with Singapore, changing into the P4 with two others, and finally the TPP.
To prick his big TPP bubble, though, all of a sudden there comes a weird little giggling from the audience. The kind of suppressed laughter of someone who can’t stop or has some kind of condition. A second person starts laughing as Walker talks Investor State Dispute Resolution. Then a third.
McClay and Walker, security and event organisers all play it cool. The slides continue. So do the sniggers. Soon, though their laughter morphs into wigs, red noses, bubble blowing and then balloons inflate and pop.
Bang. Up shoots MC Plunket, calling for a vote on whether the clowns should stay.
They ignore the democratic will and start dancing off anyway. “This is a joke,” says a lone cloth sign which had somehow made it through the security checkpoints. Out they go, trespass letters in hand.
McClay must be pleased with the optics. No imagery of a minister requiring the removal of a passionate, peaceful young idealist. That’s what you pay the MC the big bucks for.
Later the people sitting either side of one of the gigglers reckoned she was obvious from early on: “Shall we say she hadn’t showered,” said one. “And we should’ve known from her tattoos and that brick of a phone,” said another.
Walker goes on through his show. Professor Jane Kelsey, the leading academic critic of the TPP, didn’t expect much new in the presentations. She’s been sitting reading a document, presumably for the Treaty of Waitangi case over the TPP, for which she is an expert witness in Wellington next week.
Question time, though, is what has brought this crowd. Three rows form and people are quick to queue to quiz McClay and Walker. The first man is cross about the lack of consultation. “I’ll leave it to David to go through some of the detail,” the minister offers. But people had been consulted and consulted; stories had appeared in the press. “Unless you are suggesting we write to every single New Zealander, we will end up having to use the media, I suppose.”
Questioner two, in export services, doubts the Foreign Affairs worksheet’s expected dollar savings for the fruit industry. “Will an apple a day keep the spindoctor away?” he asks.
Auckland Mayoral candidate, Her Warship Penny Bright, presses McClay on the term “free trade” when tariffs are indeed not eliminated on dairy. His answer is an oldie but a goodie: “It is a free trade agreement in that it frees up trade.”
The mix of issues raised, and the backgrounds of those present, is encouragingly diverse. A London School of Economics and Australian National University academic, Dr George Barker, surprises McClay by claiming the government is wrong in thinking copyright changes will cost the country $55m. Instead it will be a net benefit to the country.
Jane Kelsey gets to ask two long, detailed questions and it seems pretty clear McClay didn’t recognise the term “certification process” – a means by which she thinks the Americans can make us do even more trade dealing at the end of the whole thing if they’re not satisfied with TPP as it is.
McClay assures the roadshow a select committee will still take TPP submissions, and it’s clear here that no one is going to shut down questions. He leaves, though, after the first segment. As does Kelsey. They had other things to do and missed the bounteous Rendezvous muffins and tea.
Much later, Barry Coates, once of Oxfam and now with Sustainability Initiatives Aotearoa, gets good air time to point out that the $2.7b a year annual gains from TPP by 2030 equate to what will then be 1% of Gross National Product. Because the $2.7b figure, which is not great now, will be even smaller by then as our economy will have grown by 47 per cent in the next 14 years.
“Who benefits?” Coates asks.
Walker responds: “The answer to who benefits is whoever seeks to take advantage of the opportunities this agreement will create for investments, services, and in tariff and non-tariff ways.”
He says the $2.7b figure is a deliberate underestimate by officials not wanting to oversell the benefits. In any case, “an additional one per cent of GDP, I would argue, is not to be sneezed at. It can buy quite a lot of prosperity. One per cent positive is versus a negative if we do not join.”
Still the questioners queue.
An Auckland University researcher tries to speed things up when she gets to the mic. “I’ve got two questions but I’ve really got to pee so they’ll be quick.”
They were, too, and tricky: “Who are the Treaty partners referred to in the presentation?” and an observation that the “language in this agreement has no basis in Tikanga Māori – the neoliberal agenda it promotes is in direct contradiction to what it means to be Māori.”
Then she was off to pee.
Topics abound: overlapping trade deals; Monsanto’s lobbying in the States; software patents; a guy with a man bun who opened with “we take a dim view of everything”; worries about vineyards being bought out by Australians, Americans and Chileans; a query on whether the TPP is a snub to China and finally a man wanting to know about technology innovation.
Finally Plunket had to cut him off. “We’re already 10 minutes over time,” he sighed.
The questioner sighed, too.
“But we’ve taken five years to get to this point!”
The next roadshow is in Christchurch on Friday. Get along if you’d like a lesson in certification processes. Or a muffin. Or a laugh.