Tech Dirt | 31 October 2014
New Zealand’s Trade Minister admits they keep TPP documents secret to avoid ’public debate’
by Mike Masnick
A couple years ago, then US Trade Representative Ron Kirk explained why the negotiating text of trade agreements like the TPP needed to be kept secret: because if the public debated it, the agreement probably wouldn’t be approved. He used, as an example, a failed trade agreement where the text had been public. Beyond the "small sample size" problem of this explanation, the much more troubling aspect is the obvious question of recognizing that if public debate would kill the agreement, perhaps it’s the agreement that’s the problem and not the public.
Apparently, New Zealand’s current Trade Minister, Tim Groser, feels similar to Kirk on this issue. During a question and answer period, he was asked why he won’t share the draft texts with, say, medical professionals for input, given that the current leaks suggest it would be a disaster for public health. Groser’s answer is quite telling, in that he admits that he fears the public debate, because it would be "misinformed."
Hon Phil Goff : When the Minister has the right under Trans-Pacific Partnership rules to provide negotiating texts in confidence to relevant groups outside the Government, why has he not taken advantage of that right to ensure that core groups like medical professionals are properly informed about the issues under negotiation?
Hon TIM GROSER : We are trying to make this negotiation a success, and the member is well aware that there is some quite heavy politics here and that full disclosure to certain parties is likely to lead this to go immediately into the public debate on an ill-informed basis before the deal has been done. We are very conscious of the interests of New Zealanders in protecting themselves from such legislation, and we will continue to take a very responsible approach in this negotiation.
Goff immediately tries to point out that Groser does not, in fact, answer his question, but is cut off by the Speaker of the Parliament who claims that the question has been "addressed."
Groser’s response is revealing. First, he doesn’t actually answer the question. Goff doesn’t ask him about revealing it to the public, but merely "medical professionals." Groser is the one who leaps to the conclusion that sharing the text with medical professionals will result in public debate. Why would that be the case unless the issues in the document are so severe and so concerning to those medical professionals that they would feel the need to leak the document to the public?
Second, going back to the point concerning Ron Kirk’s comment: if you’re going to lose the public debate, then perhaps it’s the agreement that’s the problem, rather than the public debate. If these agreements are so good and important, then why can’t Groser and others present that information to the public so that they’re not "ill-informed." Yes, these are draft texts and not the final ones, but there are other forums in which such draft text negotiations are done publicly, and it hasn’t been a problem. It’s only in these international trade agreements where the final product is only revealed to the public after it’s too late to make any changes or get any input from the public who is most impacted.