The problem with secret deals

GORDON CAMPBELL
Last updated 13:05 21/06/2012

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Not all the business of government can be conducted in the full glare of publicity.

Yet for every politician who decides secrecy is essential for the public interest, there will be someone else who believes the same public interest is better served by throwing the issue open to scrutiny and debate.

Last week there was a classic example of this conflict when the text of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal was leaked to a United States website.

What the leaked papers reveal is that New Zealand appears willing to sign up to conditions that Australia is refusing to sign - namely, to so-called "investor- state" dispute mechanisms.

These would allow foreign investors to sue New Zealand in front of an international tribunal if the current Government, or any future Government, chooses to pass health, labour, environmental or other laws and regulations that cause the investors to lose money.

What is the TPP?

It began life as a trade proposal linking New Zealand, Brunei, Chile and Singapore and expanded to include the United States, Australia, Peru and Vietnam.

Canada and Malaysia are regarded as prospective members and the agreement could also in time embrace China, Japan and South Korea.

Trade Minister Tim Groser has cited the trade benefits to New Zealand from our enhanced access to such a huge market, and has given assurances he would never sign up to anything that would compromise our sovereignty.

"The New Zealand Government will not sign any agreement that stops us now, or any Government in future, from regulating for public health or any other legitimate policy purposes," he said.

"We will protect New Zealand's legitimate rights to regulate."

In the next breath though - and note the weasel word "legitimate" in the above quote, which renders the assurance virtually meaningless - Groser went on to make the case for signing up to "well- designed" clauses that do restrict our sovereignty.

The "investor/state dispute mechanisms" may lie at the heart of the current concerns about the TPP, but they are not the only issue.

The structure and operations of the Pharmac health agency and dairy giant Fonterra have both come under attack from other countries, which are likely to be seeking concessions from us.

In the meantime, what Groser and his Cabinet colleagues appear to be asking for from the public is a blank cheque.

During the TPP negotiations, the Key Government will be under pressure to trade off significant sovereign rights, in the hope of securing a potential trade bonanza downstream.

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Yet the process is being carried out in a total information blackout, to the point where the first official insight the public will get about the details will be well after Groser and his team have signed up the current New Zealand Government, and committed future generations, to its terms.

Rest assured, though, that anything we sign will be "well- designed".

The TPP trade talks are not expected to be concluded until the end of the year.

Parliament, however, will not be seeing the details of the text until after the deal is signed and even then, all the relevant papers will be kept secret for four years afterwards.

When such intense secrecy is the norm, it is easy to understand why documents get leaked, so some level of public debate is possible.

- Horowhenua Mail

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