(This post was originally written for OnTheLeftNZ.com.)

The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement is big. Really big. Like a big sleeping super secret behemoth that will soon extend its tentacles outwards from its slumbering location and take a stranglehold on us and 11 other countries around the world. Once it’s in place we won’t be able to do anything about it. And the scary thing is we’re not even supposed to know what’s going on until after it emerges from its watery depths, in control of far more than any normal trade agreement has the right to control.

If you ask the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about your concerns, you get brushed off. Like say, wanting to know why it’s so secret to NZ citizens, or why the leaked info we have about the Copyright and IP chapter is so harsh, or why health officials who are predicting this will be a huge and expensive blow to PHARMAC are being ignored. If you manage to ask, you tend to get one very dismissive answer back: “It’s International trade, this is how it works, you wouldn’t understand.”

It’s true that I’m not and never have been the chief negotiator for New Zealand in an international trade deal, so there probably is an awful lot about the TPPA and the international trade process that I don’t understand. However, from listening to experts who do, I’m piecing together a picture that says I should still be very concerned about what is happening here. We all should.

The TPPA is not a ‘normal’ international trade agreement

Most trade agreements are bilateral trade agreements. New Zealand has a bunch of these already. The thing that’s different about the TPPA is that it’s a multilateral agreement. Essentially the USA has decided instead of expending the horrendous amount of effort and time to set up heaps of bilateral agreements, it’ll just bundle a whole lot of countries all together and get them all out of the way in one big whack.

It’s a strategy that’s taken over six years to get anywhere, because the odd thing about getting a whole lot of countries in a room together with different goals, cultural values and desires from trade? They’re going to find it pretty tricky to agree.

From leaked documents (the latest ones here: https://wikileaks.org/tpp-ip2/), we can get a pretty good sense of what’s happened, who’s agreeing (or disagreeing) to what. But we only find this information out afterwards, and only if we’re lucky enough to get a leak this round.

The secrecy around trade agreements is apparently necessary in order to help broker the agreements, and it is something we have experienced in previous trade agreements. However, the TPPA isn’t completely secret – certain parties with a vested interest are able to view, comment and influence the content of the agreement. These parties aren’t the parliaments, social services or citizens of the participating countries, they’re corporations (predominantly US-based) who stand to make a profit. So, Disney, for example. Or representatives from the tobacco industry.

Of the 29 chapters in the TPPA, only five are related to what usually goes into a trade document – tariffs and the like. The rest are related to things like labour laws, IP and copyright and a whole lot of other things, stuff that it’s usually left up to the countries themselves to legislate. Proponents of the TPPA say this is just what modern trade agreements look like, and that we should expect to sacrifice a few things here and there in order to get access to the sweet, sweet, international export market. I think that allowing the US to have a stranglehold on New Zealand law isn’t worth the few coins it’ll get us.

The TPPA is not ‘free trade’

There’s this idea that trade, and especially free trade, are things that we want. And yeah, New Zealand needs things and other countries have them, so it’s a good idea for us to trade to get those things. Free trade is a term to describe when all the little tariffs and fees for getting our product into the desired country get lifted. For example, New Zealand beef and dairy into say, the US. If we set up a free trade agreement with the US, those pesky fees could disappear, and it could mean better profits for New Zealand and New Zealand’s dairy farmers.

The thing is the US already has a really intense dairy industry. There are a lot of protections and subsidies in federal and state law to make sure local farmers can run at a profit while maintaining low prices that consumers want. Agricultural farmers in the US have enjoyed protections going back to the 1920s and still remain pretty chummy with the people in Washington who make decisions about these things.

Any removal of tariffs on New Zealand imports of dairy or beef will be met with heavy lobbying resistance from US farmers whose profits would be under threat. It’s just not a thing that is very likely, no matter how hard we push for it. The States don’t need our product and it’d actively hurt their existing markets to give it to us. I haven’t seen a lot of discussion around this (mostly because I follow the copyright branch more closely), but it seems like access to the US market is New Zealand’s number one reason for chasing the TPPA, and it’s a lofty and highly unlikely one.

Copyright and IP

Corporate interests are using their influence over the TPPA to push for harsher copyright laws, claiming that this will encourage innovation and the creation of new content. There is no evidence that any of the proposed changes to IP and copyright reform will have a positive effect on creators – only corporate pockets.

The changes that are proposed include extension to copyright (meaning works will stay in copyright and out of the public domain for longer), compulsory DRM (that annoying stuff that is supposed to make it harder to steal, but just makes using legitimate products more horrible) and will put a lot of pressure on ISPs to be the gatekeepers of their users. This could affect our access to streaming services (geoblocking), as well as the overall privacy of users online.

New Zealand was due to have a copyright review last year, but this has been indefinitely delayed until we know what we’ll have to agree to under the TPPA.

New Zealand has stood against some steps of the copyright and IP chapters. Parallel importing would be incredibly unpopular to lose. However, there’s very real concern that pressures from the US combined with the tasty carrot of other chapters of the TPPA will mean New Zealand will sign anyway.

Other consequences

Because this deal is so big, so far-reaching, and with very little recourse left open to us once it is signed, it’s difficult to predict just what the consequences will be. There’s a lot to be concerned about, like how New Zealand’s government could be held accountable by an private international court if we make laws that are seen to cut into a company’s profits.

That’s right. We can be sued for making laws that would benefit New Zealanders if a company decides that law will affect their profits. Say, plain packaged cigarettes.

What can we do?

Since all this is happening in secret behind closed doors it’s hard to know what we can do. It’s even harder when you try to voice your concerns but are met with the same dismissive ‘you wouldn’t understand’ answer. It is tricky to keep the balance of all the chapters, all the countries and the dynamics and possible effects this agreement will have on us and the world.

With the TPPA composing 40% of the world’s economic wealth, this isn’t something we can fall asleep and wait for. This monster is coming, so perhaps we should sharpen our wordblades to try and disarm it.

The TPPA is ambling ever closer to its conclusion, and as it does so it is shaping up to look like a super terrible deal for New Zealand on all sides.

Nationwide protests happened today against the TPPA. To keep up to date with the latest info, http://www.itsourfuture.org.nz/ is the best resource.