Labour Is Talking About The TPP Heaps.

I am not a trade economist, and all I know about international trade law owes to having spent a rainy weekend in a bach with some under-stimulated lawyers. So there’s no attempt to evaluate the TPP on the merits here. I’m not qualified to do so, and even if I were everyone’s made their minds up already. So here’s an inside-baseball, horse-race classic.

Little has clearly formed a strong view on the merits of the deal and he doesn’t think it’s good for New Zealand. That’s an improvement on the previous vacillation, which had the effect of alienating both supporters and opponents of the deal. However there remain issues with the articulation of this view, some owing to the previous attempts at compromise.

Noticeably, Labour has not articulated an economic argument against the TPP. Instead, Labour has committed to the sovereignty argument. This leaves Labour open to attack from the National party for adopting impractical, ideologically driven position instead of accepting trade-offs in the national interest, a line of attack that echoes pre-existing voter concerns and reinforces Labour’s perceived weakness on economic issues. It also ignores the fact that for many voters concrete issues of economic security trump even emotive issues of sovereignty.

The failure to ensure that Shearer and Goff were on board with the new policy was a major failure of political management. Shearer and Goff are senior figures in the party with past, present and future responsibilities for implementing foreign and trade policies. They are major stakeholders who should at least be able to accept party policy if not agree with it. Their dissension was predictable and deeply undercuts both the credibility and the effectiveness of Labour’s stand.

It is unreasonable to expect a spokesperson to front a policy they see as deeply irresponsible, unprincipled, and unrealistic. However, by the same token, if Shearer wished to disagree with party policy he should have resigned from the shadow cabinet and done so from the back benches and he can hardly be surprised about the inevitable consequences. Goff is running for the Auckland mayoralty as an independent. At this point, he will feel both a principled duty to back a policy he believes is in Auckland and New Zealand’s best interest, and a pragmatic wish to make it clear he is his own man and not beholden to party bosses. It is frustrating this wasn’t better handled, and the choice of Shearer and Goff to break with the party is disappointing.

But more importantly than the details of the positioning on this issue, is this issue one which will propel Labour closer to victory in 2017? Should Labour be talking about the TPP so much?

A Herald Digi-Poll from September 2015 indicates that 31% of New Zealanders disliked the TPP, while 23% support it, but in December 2015 that same poll had shifted to put support on 27% and opposition down to 26%. But that leaves a substantial 46% in both polls who either don’t know or don’t care. In reality, a bare majority of the public have an opinion about the TPP, and the vast majority of them will be ideological votes who have already have made their minds up how they will vote in the next general election. These are not even voters who have arrived at a view but are unlikely to allow it to change their votes — as might be the case about the flag — but are voters who simply don’t care enough to arrive at a view. They are deeply uninterested.

The chunk of voters who are uninterested in the TPP will tend to be the non-ideological voters that Labour needs to win over, and they are the voters who will be most turned-off by displays of division and poor management. Further, the political conversation is finite. Every time Andrew Little talks about the TPP, or caucus indiscipline, he is not talking about another issue. Given that the TPP does not appear to be a significant issue for near to a majority of voters it does not seem to be a particularly good use of a limited resource.

If you look at Key over the last fortnight, he has successfully negotiated two tricky issues in a way which has probably increased his popularity – the signalling of his likely departure in the latter part of his fourth term, and his backdown on the Auckland city rail link. Both these issues had the potential to become difficult for him, but he has either neutralised or exploited them in a manner that will have appealed to centrist voters as pragmatic and effective. Labour, by contrast, has devoted huge time and energy to an issue primarily of interest to ideologically driven voters who are by and large already committed to supporting or opposing the party, has highlighted internal division in so doing, and passed up opportunities to talk about issues of broader relevance to voters.