3 Feb 2015

TPP pact close but hurdles remain

5:43 am on 3 February 2015

Time is running out to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal done before the next US presidential race brings Barack Obama's trade ambitions to a halt.

US President Barack Obama delivers his 2015 State of the Union Address to Congress.

US President Barack Obama - pictured delivering his 2015 State of the Union Address. Photo: AFP

But last week, America's top trade official, Michael Froman, told a US Senate Committee that the TPP - sometimes also called the TPPA - was almost ready.

"We're not done yet but I feel confident that we're making good progress and we hope to close out a very positive package soon."

Officials from the 12 TPP nations met in New York last week to whittle down the outstanding issues to all but the most intractable.

Tim Groser

Tim Groser Photo: RNZ

New Zealand Trade Minister Tim Groser said controversial areas like drug development protection rules could still trip up the talks.

"We recognise there's been enormous progress. We see huge signs of momentum," he said.

"So it looks like it's coming to a head. But I've been around long enough to know that unless it's actually done, it's never done."

But time is short, with some analysts saying a TPP deal needs to be agreed by April at the latest. The US presidential election takes place in November 2016.

Auckland University law professor and and long-time TPP opponent Jane Kelsey has been in New York.

Ms Kelsey said Mr Obama's desire to seal a deal to enhance his legacy could mean compromises in agriculture that could leave New Zealand's farmers little better off.

"Both Japan and the US will be looking to safeguard their own positions, Canada likewise.

"And nothing I've seen here this week gives me a sense that there is going to be anything like the commitments that Minister Groser talked about as a prerequisite when the negotiations began," she said.

Mr Groser had demanded a comprehensive and high-quality agreement.

That language has faded as the talks get down to the business end of trying to reach an agreement, replaced by pragmatism.

With the US and Japan resuming bilateral talks on access for farm goods this week, Mr Groser insisted any deal had to result in substantial gains for dairy if New Zealand was to sign up.

"Dairy is right there amongst the most difficult issues. There's massive pressure against us. But we won't sign a deal that doesn't take our major export forward in a substantial way," he said.

But with talks coming down to the wire, Ms Kelsey was worried any agreed deal would leave New Zealand worse off.

She said by then it would be too late to do anything about it.

Ms Kelsey said the public needed to know what was in these secretive talks, as Europeans would do in their trade talks with the US.

"The European Commission has said they will release the text before it is signed. If it's doable between the US and the EU, then it is doable in the TPP," she said.

Trade ministers are expected to meet in March to try and close the deal.

If they fail, they might not get another chance.

Follow Patrick O'Meara on Twitter @omearanz

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