February 6th, etc

On February 4th, in Auckland, the representatives of twelve countries signed the Transpacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) following seven years of negotiation. The countries involved were Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Chile, USA, Australia, Peru, Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico, Canada, and Japan.

I arrived in New Zealand on February 3rd.  The following day there was a heavy police presence in downtown Auckland and all the media were out in front of a posh hotel as I walked by. Then a massive anti-TPPA demonstration wended its way down Auckland’s main drag, Queen Street. The most interesting thing about Queen St is that it follows the route the lava took coming off Albert Park volcano when it erupted. Queen Street has the atmosphere of a gully. I stood at the corner of Queen Street and Customs Street and watched this impressive procession, boisterous but peaceful, go by. It was headed by the Maori. They paused exactly where I stood and performed a haka that made the All Blacks version seem a bit wimpy. It stirred some deep emotion within me and made me realise that New Zealand really belongs to the Maori. The predominant culture of Eotearoa is Maori. All the place names, all the street names, are Maori. In that respect, New Zealand rather resembles Scotland and its association with Gaeldom.

The arguments against TPPA are complex but I think most people who are against TPPA think of it as a corporate scam construed to entrench the power of multinational companies and to take that power away from sovereign states. Therefore it is thought to be antidemocratic. Part of the agreement is the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). Global corporations could sue governments in tribunals organised by the World Bank or the UN to obtain compensation from them for loss of expected future profits due to government actions. For example, the economist Joseph Stiglitz has suggested, TPPA could give oil companies the right to sue governments for loss of profits due to efforts to reduce carbon emissions and global warming.

February 6th is Waitangi Day. On this day New Zealand celebrates the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Government and the Maori people in 1840. Then, a lot of the Maori wondered if they weren’t being taken for a ride. Many people feel the same with respect to TPPA. They wonder if the real issues are not being buried in a mound of obfuscation. The New Zealand Prime Minister usually attends the February 6th celebrations in Waitangi. The last time I was in New Zealand I actually attended myself. All these Maori war canoes tied up on the isthmus between Paihia and Waitangi create an awesome impression. I seem to recall somebody threw a punch at the PM but nobody was much bothered. This year the PM elected not to go. Prudent.

There are some parallels between anti-TPPA sentiments in New Zealand, and “Brexit” in the UK – a suspicion that huge multinational conglomerates will inevitably erode national sovereignty. The difference is that while Brexit threatens to tear the Tories apart, anti-TPPA sentiments come largely from the disadvantaged and dispossessed.

I wonder if any of this got reported on the BBC? I would guess not. They say “all news is local”. You might say all news is parochial.

But New Zealand is as beautiful as ever and, I think, unchanged in essentials. I went to an outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest last night at the Pump House by Lake Pupuke and a beautiful young thespian sat beside me before the start and chattered away. I said to her, “Lovely to talk, but don’t your need to psyche yourself up?” Apparently not. She was happy to blether away. Then the lights on stage came up and suddenly she was “on”.

What is the defining characteristic of being Kiwi? Straightforwardness. There is no guile. Maybe that’s why they have this misgiving that, behind all the acres of wordage, TPPA is not quite what it seems.         

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