More than 20,000 demonstrators brought Auckland’s CBD to a standstill on Thursday, protesting the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Braving threats of a heavy-handed response from police, activists blockaded the signing venue at the SkyCity casino, shutting down intersections and impeding traffic in the surrounding area. As their numbers swelled through the morning, roaming protests fanned out through the city occupying key access points such as motorway on- and off- ramps, bringing traffic to a standstill and temporarily closing a section of the Harbour Bridge. Meanwhile, thousands gathered around Aotea Square for the largest demonstration against the TPPA yet, and one of the largest in the last 30 years. People came to express their anger from all walks of life, Nurses, doctors, teachers, students, construction workers, lawyers, librarians and university lecturers were all amongst the crowd that marched down Queen Street, and at the front a Hikoi was led by a large Kapa Haka group.
Other protests occurred up and down the country, and internationally too. In Kuala Lumpur, thousands of Malaysians protested, as did groups across the U.S., Canada, Peru and Chile. All of these protest marches were focused against an agreement that gives massive benefits to the wealthy at the expense of the environment, healthcare and worker’s rights. It is such an encompassing “trade” agreement that it affects the whole of the societies of each of the 12 nations signing it. In all of these countries democracy has all but disappeared when it comes to this deal, a deal that despite the signing still has many more changes and hurdles ahead before it comes into effect.
The TPPA signed at SkyCity is a bill of rights for corporations. Its provisions aim to secure and expand the profits of the mega-rich by opening up markets and stopping regulations that might harm corporate interests. That’s why the National Party and many New Zealand business groups actually support the deal. It is seen as a way to secure continuing profits for the mega-rich that have been languishing since the 2008 crisis; it is this unprofitability that drives the ideology of austerity, of “free trade” deals, of increasing corporate rights and attacking workers’ rights.
A deal done in secret, to secure the right for the rich to make profit, while in all these countries democratic structures have been attacked and removed, public institutions remodelled themselves on corporate boards and austerity for the poor while the rich are offered hand-out after hand-out. All of these changes represent the ideology of the ruling class in New Zealand and the ruling class in each of the 12 nations. No business is run as a democracy, when business ideals and ethics are developed and used as the standard for how we manage a society, democracy just gets in the way. Each attack on every sector reduces the ability of people to decide for themselves their own future, for them to decide against the new offshore drilling project in what used to be a marine reserve, or the gold mine under that sacred mountain. The TPPA is another in the long list of attacks on democracy, the agreement will allow corporates to more directly influence regulation and government policy – possibly more so than public pressure does today.
The deal grants corporations the power to sue governments for the loss of future profits through the use of Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS). This is done through substantive rules that compel compensation for expropriated property, ensure that foreign firms enjoy the same rights and benefits as local firms, and require governments to give “fair and equitable treatment” to foreign firms modelled on World Bank guidelines. This system has no transparency – courts are not required to publish any decisions, and also no appeal system. It weighs heavily in multi-national corporations favour and acts as a chill to stop legislating against anything that impinges on those profits. Since the 1980’s, ISDS provisions have already been introduced in over 2700 bilateral investment treaties between countries, all based on guidelines set down by the World Bank. While these provisions are in all these agreements, traditionally it has only been countries that have these ISDS provisions in agreements with the U.S. that have had to worry. The ISDS arbitration courts are a form of imperialism, a way of exporting U.S. laws and judgements to other countries to ensure that profit can continue accumulating to large multi-national corporations by removing regulations that get in the way.
However, the TPPA does make some regulations: regulations that favour corporations. It will make information and culture less free by extending the period of copyright ownership. Exclusive patent periods for advanced medicines will be extended to the benefit of giant pharmaceutical companies. It will hamper PHARMAC’s ability to provide affordable medicines in Aotearoa and force the regulatory body to pay more. John Key assures us that the price rises won’t affect consumers, but admits that the burden will have to fall elsewhere. These costs alone costs alone could eat up the government’s claims of $2.7 billion dollars added to the New Zealand economy by 2030. Profit that amounts to less than 1% of New Zealand’s GDP – and which we can be sure nearly all of it will go to the already extremely wealthy. Given that governments over the past 30 years have been committed to cutting public expenditure, one has to wonder where the cuts will come from? Not from corporate budgets to be sure, but from social spending such as education, welfare and housing – already under sustained assault by the National government.
The standards for environmental and human rights protections written into the TPPA are very weak: in a short chapter on the environment the TPPA makes no mention of climate change and establishes environmental standards even worse than those promoted by George W. Bush; these standards are unenforceable and only ask countries to strive to limit the damage to the environment. When it comes to Māori rights the agreement is woefully inadequate; while the text respects the government’s requirement to honour the treaty, it leaves it to the government to decide when it is obligated to do so and what is required as compensation. Māori are still waiting for the obligations under the Treaty of Waitangi to be fulfilled, over land rights that are continually attacked, water rights and even Mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) itself. Māori were not at all consulted over the TPPA and the text shows that there can be no guarantee that rights established by the Treaty of Waitangi will be respected. It is no wonder that the government could only get 3 members of Ngāti Whātua to form possibly the smallest pōwhiri ever seen for the visiting Trade Ministers. Te Tiriti is the only indigenous agreement mentioned in the TPPA – which totally ignores the rights of Mapuche, Aboriginal, and First Nations peoples in all 12 countries, defying the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Hostility to the National government was everywhere on Thursday. “John Key’s Epic Fails: Lies, Spies and Ponytails” read a placard carried by one demonstrator, “John Key = Punked” said another. But even more so, it was the organisation and innovative tactics of the protestors that ensured an already massive march turned into something extraordinary. By shutting down the city for the day they broke through the lies and showed the world that there is an alternative to John Key, a corporatised society and the TPPA. The shine was taken out of “Teflon John’s” suit of armour, and two days after the rally Key was booed by the crowds as he ran away from Waitangi to go to the NRL 9s. Everywhere you looked, dissent raised its banner, loud and proud. Parties that were lukewarm in their opposition to the TPPA were literally left behind in the dust, abandoned as the hikoi continued on to SkyCity in defiance of both John Key and the “officially” advertised route.
The protest was a rejection not just of the TPPA, but also of the “accepted way of dissent” promoted by parties on the established “left”. People took power into their own hands. The blockaders led by the protest group Real Choice are to be commended for reminding people of the power of civil disobedience, how successful, dynamic and inspiring it can be. They showed that they would not be intimidated by police tactics, by the police photographing the protestors and harassing them before the protest, by their aggression when cameras weren’t focused on them. They also showed they would not follow meekly to merely march away from where the deal was signed, but rather flock to it in force. It exploded the myth that power exists only in the halls of parliament – it is on the streets as well. A challenge needs to be raised to Labour, and the other parties in parliament, who are fixated on scrambling to power by any means possible – even if that means cutting a deal with John Key’s mates in the business world. Just one day after the signing the Labour Party reversed their “principled position” on the TPPA, announcing they would not repeal it in government. We cannot entrust the rejection of this deal to parliament, we must do it with our own hands, through consistent mass action and civil disobedience.
Nurturing an alternative vision and breaking free of the pro-business consensus that has straight-jacketed official politics for 30 years is vital if we are to win the battles ahead. The TPPA is far away from being implemented, it does not even have a majority in the U.S. congress and is facing difficulties not only in New Zealand, but in Malaysia, Chile, Peru, Japan, and Canada as well. We still have 2 years maybe longer to build a consistent campaign, to demand for democracy, and to stop this deal in its tracks. The message of the ruling class over the past 5 years has been consistent – stay out of our deal or else, but the message of the demonstrators however was clear and rang out across the country and across the Pacific: we have power too; and if our governments won’t listen, we are not afraid to use it.
Image credit: Marc Inzon