While business leaders have praised a trade deal with the UK, some critics are concerned about a fast-tracked process shepherding it through Parliament without proper scrutiny

Rushed public consultation over New Zealand’s free trade agreement with the United Kingdom goes against the Government’s commitments to take a more transparent approach to trade, MPs have been told.

At the start of this month, Trade and Export Growth Minister Damien O’Connor and his British counterpart Anne-Marie Trevelyan signed the final text of what Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described as a “gold-standard trade agreement”, with an estimated boost to GDP of between $700 million and $1 billion.

Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence and trade committee is currently carrying out an international treaty examination of the FTA before it is ratified by Parliament.

However, some have taken issue with the short 10-day timeframe for written submissions on the lengthy text, as well as some of the concessions being made in exchange for improved market access.

Speaking to the committee, FIRST Union policy analyst and It’s Our Future spokesman Edward Miller said the organisations were concerned about the truncated process which came in the middle of New Zealand’s surging Omicron outbreak.

“That capacity for people to engage with a 1700-page document in a 10-day period during the context of this, when probably large numbers of family are isolating, is very, very difficult.”

Miller said protests over the CPTPP trade deal had led the Labour Government to commit to improved engagement and public inclusion – promises which had been swept aside in favour of “trying to get a deal in sync with Australia” and meeting the UK’s own deadlines.

“I would submit that actually the opportunity for New Zealand people to engage on their foreign policy, to engage on trade relations, is more important than timelines that are set externally.

“We have the need for an independent foreign policy and independent trade negotiations and that should be put paramount ahead of those other concerns.”

“I have made submissions now on FTAs for over 30 years, and despite widespread criticism over that time, including from Labour in opposition and from the Greens, and calls for substantive change … the problem is getting worse.”
– Jane Kelsey

He was disappointed New Zealand had not pushed the UK to commit to an intellectual property waiver for Covid essentials as part of the talks, saying that while talks were taking place at the World Trade Organisation, there had been a clear opportunity to force a change in the British position.

While it was positive that the UK deal included chapters on labour rights and the climate, they were secondary to the interests of investors.

“We’re talking about exporting more dairy to the other side of the world – is that really an agreement that addresses climate concerns?”

Auckland University law professor Jane Kelsey echoed Miller’s concerns with the process, saying the brief consultation period went against talk of good regulatory practice and transparency in the deal itself.

“I have made submissions now on FTAs for over 30 years, and despite widespread criticism over that time, including from Labour in opposition and from the Greens, and calls for substantive change … the problem is getting worse.

“It’s a farce.”

Kelsey said the Trade for All advisory board’s call for independent national analyses with broader and clearer criteria had not been heeded, and while both countries had played up the deal’s benefits to Māori, the UK in the agreement had “basically washed its hands of any Treaty responsibilities”.

“This comes at significant cost to Māori: not only the denial by the British Crown of its Treaty responsibilities, but it includes the repeat of the breach of the Crown’s Treaty obligations in the digital chapter.”

The intellectual property chapter did nothing to help Kiwi companies seeking to trademark mānuka honey in the UK as a specialist Māori product, and “explicitly says that nothing to do with genetic resources or traditional knowledge or cultural icons for Māori is to be considered intellectual property”, Kelsey said.

‘Most meaningful FTA since China’

Speaking in support of the deal, NZ International Business Forum executive director Stephen Jacobi described it as “our most commercially meaningful FTA we have negotiated since the groundbreaking agreement with China” due to the tariff cuts and innovative rules in areas like sustainability and the digital economy.

While a 15-year timeframe for the elimination of all tariffs on beef and lamb was a long time to wait, Jacobi said transitional quotas would deliver commercially meaningful access earlier on.

Concessions in other areas, such as extending the copyright term from life plus 50 years to life plus 70, were outweighed by the benefits for Kiwi businesses, he said.

“What always amazes me when we sometimes hear criticisms of trade agreements saying it’s as if these small things like market access and the needs of business can just be put to one side for a minute while we concentrate on these other issues.”

Federated Farmers president Andrew Hoggard also praised the deal, saying it set the bar high for future agreements such as the one still being negotiated with the European Union.

“Normally for agriculture, we always feel like we end up being the whipping boys in these sorts of negotiations and never quite get the deal we want, because the opposing governments are often very protectionist around the agricultural sectors, so it’s been very pleasing to see the UK stepping up here.”

Chris Karamea Insley, chairman of Te Taumata – a group set up in 2019 as the “first port of call for trade discussions with Māori” – told MPs the deal would boost Māori exporters who were already starting to hire staff in anticipation of their products being able to enter the British market more easily.

The foreign affairs committee is due to report back on the FTA by mid-April.

* This article has been updated to clarify some of Jane Kelsey’s remarks

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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