Politics

Don’t fall for the government’s spin on the TPPA

The new government’s attempts to soften up public opinion for the return of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement is a masterclass in spin, writes ActionStation’s Laura O’Connell Rapira.

As outgoing RNZ news director at Brent Edwards recently said, we need to stop treating the goings-on of our democracy as a carnival or sport. Too often we talk about the tactics and personalities of politics more than the policy impacts on everyday New Zealanders.

It makes for entertaining headlines, but does it really convey the nuances of complex policy people need to wrap their heads around in order to participate meaningfully? I’m not convinced.

And yet here I am, adding my own 700 words worth of political analysis to describe what has been a masterclass in ‘priming’ and ‘agenda-setting’ from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and the New Zealand Labour Party.

The message they are spinning? “Sorry voters, but we had to swallow the worst parts of the TPPA. It’s not our fault, it’s National’s.”

This is, of course, patently untrue. The Labour-led government doesn’t have to forge ahead with a subpar trade deal that, according to MFAT’s own analysis of the benefits to New Zealand in signing the TPPA – back when the USA was still in – was only ever going to contribute a 0.9 per cent increase to GDP by 2030. Real GDP was already projected to increase by 47% in that time without TPPA. So that’s a 47.9% growth rate with TPPA or 47% without it. Labour don’t have to sign an average agreement that leaves the rights and interests of Māori vulnerable to foreign states and corporations who have no obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

They are choosing to push ahead with it. They just want us to think it’s not a choice.

Priming has its basis in cognitive psychology. It is about readying the public for a political decision using messages that foreshadow the outcome. It is about tapping into preconceptions to frame up the inevitability of your decision so the public accepts it more easily because they have been prepped for it.

It’s Jacinda Ardern commenting on the likelihood of successfully negotiating changes to the most toxic clause in the TPPA – investor-state dispute resolution, or ISDS – with this statement: “I do acknowledge it will be difficult [at] this late stage to achieve this outcome, but that will not stop us from trying.”

For those new to the acronym-laden world of trade, ISDS is the mechanism which gives corporations the right to sue our government if they legislate at the expense of private profit, even if it’s in the public interest. Think: warnings on tobacco, removing sugary drinks from schools, passing a Zero Carbon Act or banning deep sea oil drilling. Pretty shit idea really.

Agenda-setting is a media and political theory developed in a study on the 1968 American presidential election. It describes how politicians (and others, including my homies at ActionStation) work to influence the salience of issues on the public agenda through the media, and increasingly social media. It’s Labour honing in on the headline grabber to ban foreign ownership of New Zealand property without having actual evidence to suggest this is the biggest problem in the housing market today. The hope is that ‘win’ will give them the political capital to say they made change, while still supporting the TPPA.

This might all sound very cynical. A Labour-New Zealand First-Green government was – and still is – our best hope for the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken action to oppose the worst parts of the TPPA over the past three years.

But as I was doing research for this piece, I went looking for a petition Labour had launched against the TPPA earlier this year. I found this:

Big ol’ blank page

The cynic in me says this is purposeful. The charitable digital campaigner in me hopes it’s just a glitch. Either way, it didn’t do much to reassure me that Labour will hold strong when it comes to the pressure they will face from business to finalise the TPPA, ISDS included.

This comment, deep in the select committee report on TPPA in 2016 did provide some relief though. Here’s what Labour said then:

“The TPPA will have ramifications for generations of New Zealanders. For their sake, we should not so lightly enter into an agreement which may exacerbate long-term challenges for our economy, workforce, and society.”

I agree. That’s why we’re crowdfunding these billboards into existence:

Laura O’Connell Rapira (Te Ātiawa, Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa) is the co-director of ActionStation and co-founder of RockEnrol.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.