Navigating the TPP and the Treaty

5:43 am on 22 January 2016

Power Play - MPs are returning to work after the summer break but the start to the political year is likely to be anything but relaxed.

TPP protest at Parliament.

Anti-TPP protesters gather outside Parliament in August 2015. Photo: RNZ / Amelia Langford

The annual pilgrimage to Rātana in late January marks the traditional start to the political year.

In the past, party leaders, ministers and MPs have filed onto the pa to pay their respects to the founder of the Rātana Church, T W Rātana - but this year the event may be marred for the first time by protest.

Waitangi has normally been the site of protest, as people unhappy with the Crown's lack of respect for the Treaty of Waitangi have made their feelings known directly to politicians.

It's understood that rumblings over the soon-to-be-signed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) could lead to protest not only at Waitangi but also at the normally peaceful Rātana celebrations.

The church is calling for calm but says it has been told there could be protest this year as many of its morehu (followers) are not happy about the TPP.

A spokesperson for the church says its own views on the agreement will also be voiced on the paepae to Prime Minister John Key and his MPs.

Prime Minister John Key (centre) with National MPs at Ratana Pa.

Prime Minister John Key (centre) with National MPs at Ratana Pa in 2014. Photo: RNZ

Protests are also likely in the lead-up to the signing of the agreement in Auckland on 4 February, but Mr Key can also expect to get the full treatment when he turns up at Te Tii Marae at Waitangi the following day.

Ngāpuhi elder Kingi Taurua has even suggested the gates of the marae should be closed if the deal is signed before Waitangi Day.

Government arguments unlikely to reach protesters

So why are many in te ao Māori upset about the TPP?

Victoria University senior law lecturer Carwyn Jones says the way the government has engaged with Māori about the TPP is not consistent with the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi that are commonly applied by the courts.

He says one of the great concerns is that while the government does have treaty obligations, other states or corporations who might have greater power under the TPP will not.

Trade Minister Todd McClay says there is a lot of misinformation circulating about the TPP and that nothing in the deal will prevent the Crown from meeting its obligations to Māori.

He's released a factsheet about the agreement that states the agreement includes a specific provision preserving the pre-eminence of the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand.

It also states the deal ensures New Zealand's interpretation of the treaty is not subject to the dispute settlement provisions of TPP.

The Crown doesn't exactly have a stellar record of abiding by its treaty obligations, but Mr McClay insists the approach does reflect the constitutional significance of the treaty to New Zealand.

But neither Mr McClay's factsheet nor its arguments are likely to reach the ears of protesters.

Nor will the fact that a Treaty of Waitangi provision has been part of all trade agreements New Zealand has signed since 2001.

In fact, most of New Zealand's domestic legislation includes a reference to the Treaty of Waitangi, which, as with all law, is open to legal interpretation.

Only a matter of time for TPP

The TPP has struck a chord with many people who now believe it to be one of the worst trade deals New Zealand has ever agreed to.

Much of that fury might be because opponents felt shut out of the negotiations - or genuine upset at parts of the final text itself.

Either way, it's likely to be a bumpy ride for the government ministers and MPs who have to explain the deal on marae or at the numerous TPP roadshows planned for March.

But it won't matter how many petitions, protests or stunts are carried out; the government has the numbers to get the deal ratified, and it is only a matter of time before the TPP comes into force.

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