15 Jun 2016

Free-trade sceptics give 'Asian TPP' the thumbs down

10:55 am on 15 June 2016

An attempt to consult with the public over the Asian version of the TPP has been given the thumbs down by free-trade sceptics.

Two way trade with Vietnam was at $1.1b in the June year and the government wants to double that by 2020.

The RCEP will include nations such as Vietnam, a fast growing market for New Zealand products. Photo: 123RF

A live-streamed public meeting was held yesterday as part of the talks in Auckland this week about the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The 13th round of talks for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - the Asian version of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - is under way in Auckland.

Trade Minister Todd McClay

Trade Minister Todd McClay. Photo: BEEHIVE.GOVT.NZ

It covers 3 billion people and includes countries such as China, India, Japan and Korea and represents 27 percent of global trade*.

Trade Minister Todd McClay told the meeting of 50 people it was important to hear all sides' views on trade pacts like TPP and RCEP.

"I'm very keen to hear from others in the room, and to hear their comments and to answer questions where I can.

"But I would state again and ask you to consider this is the start of a conversation. It's not a consultation and it's the start of engagement," Mr McClay said.

But some participants felt the process was a sham.

Auckland law professor and TPP critic Jane Kelsey was particularly riled stakeholders had only two minutes each to present their views in the two sessions earlier in the afternoon, and only a minute to ask questions during the public meeting.

"Minister, I was very pleased when you initially said you would open up the process in ways they hadn't been before. But I have to say frankly this is not good enough.

"It turns out that industry has an additional session tomorrow to advise negotiators on what regulations they want changed."

Professor Kelsey said the so-called engagement actually represented a major step backwards from the early days of the TPP talks, and even at the previous RCEP round in Perth.

Jane Kelsey

Professor Jane Kelsey. Photo: RNZ / Mihingarangi Forbes

"MFAT's own account of the Auckland round in December 2012, before the TPPA negotiations went underground, said more than 300 stakeholders from over 200 organisation made over 71 presentations on topics including intellectual property, labour, environment, market access, and a investment and a briefing with chief negotiators," Professor Kelsey said.

Barry Coates of It's Our Future also took the government to task, arguing consultation and holding the government to account meant releasing the draft negotiation agreement.

"In order to undertake proper analysis and have a proper consultation we need proper information. Minister, will you release the text of the agreement?" Mr Coates said.

Mr McClay was not going to do that, but he did promise to explore new ways to improve the dialogue between all sides in the future.

"There's a lot of people in the room very keen to find more ways for us to have this conversation. So let's take a little bit of time and see. I don't think RCEP is going to be concluded this week.

"I want to find ways for us to talk about these issues in greater depth and at a bit more length," Mr McClay said.

New Zealand's lead negotiator, Mark Trainor, did take issue with Professor Kelsey over the industry meeting with RCEP negotiators.

He said the meeting was well-flagged, and would specifically deal with businesses first-hand knowledge of the use of non-tariff barriers to stifle trade.

"It's an attempt to ensure that negotiators well understand that. There is a lot of concern around non-tariff measures from various sectors, both business and other countries." Mr Trainor said.

Issues that were canvassed in TPP were also raised at the meeting, including access to affordable drugs for the poor and allowing foreign corporates to sue governments.

Health groups said a leaked copy of the intellectual property text being discussed at RCEP showed Japan and South Korea had made several proposals to include intellectual property rules that would undermine access to affordable generic medicines.

"The RCEP trade deal threatens to undermine India and China's role as major suppliers of generic medicines for people in the developing world, including both low- and middle-income countries such as Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand.

"Access to affordable generic medicines is vital for these countries to address public health challenges, including HIV, tuberculosis, viral hepatitis and non-communicable diseases," Belinda Townsend of Public Health Association of Australia said.

Business groups at the meeting asked about the benefits of RCEP for small and medium-sized businesses, and what was being done to promote the liberalisation of the services sector, which accounts for 70 percent of New Zealand's economy.

Mr McClay said reducing non-tariff barriers (NTB) were essential for New Zealand's SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises), and he foreshadowed that the government would ask officials later in the year to do more work in this area.

"To understand them better and where we can move through them and distinguish those where procedures are different and those that are actually being used as barrier to trade."

On services Mr McClay said he wanted to "level the playing field" through the RCEP talks.

"Increasingly services will become a bigger part of the New Zealand economy. We need to have better access for our people to all of these markets so services trade can grow," Mr McClay said.

Barriers to services trade can include the use of minimum capital requirements to price foreign firms out of markets, or rules that stipulate firms setting up a foreign subsidiary must use a national of that country, and who also holds a controlling stake.

* There are 16 countries involved in RCEP: the 10 members of ASEAN - Brunei-Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - plus the six countries with which ASEAN has free trade agreements: Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs