Trade Minister David Parker says an open conversation is improving the public’s confidence in trade deals, writes Hamish Rutherford. But is he simply avoiding the grind of travel?
David Parker may be the busiest man in New Zealand. He makes the joke that if you want something done, you give it to the busy person.
But the stakes are high. As well as being the minister of trade, Parker holds the attorney general, economic development and environment portfolios.
In a Government drawing more ministerial salaries than its predecessors, Parker appears to have enough work for at least two senior ministers.
This has led some to raise concerns about whether enough focus is being placed on trade.
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Exporters have privately expressed disquiet that since the new Labour-led Government was formed, no minister has visited China, New Zealand’s largest trading partner.
Parker has no plans to travel to China before November, noting he met his Chinese counterpart at Apec.
“I haven’t been to China yet because I’ve been going elsewhere. You can’t go everywhere at once.”
National is raising concerns, about Parker and Foreign Minister Winston Peters.
“I’ve heard from the business community, they sort of feel like they’ve got a trade minister that doesn’t like travel and a foreign minister who doesn’t like foreigners,” National’s Todd McClay, the former Trade Minister said.
“I’m sure that’s not the case, but trade is very important for New Zealand.”
Parker says he should be judged not by his travel schedule, but by results. Here he has a trump card.
To the surprise of many, Labour signed the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in March, effectively the TPP with a longer name and slight modification.
Yet where protesters blocked motorways when National signed the TPP, in 2018 the heat has gone out of the issue.
But only in New Zealand. In Europe, Brexit negotiations continue, while China and the United States are in the early stages of a trade war.
“There’s an anti-trade, protectionist flavour in the world. That is on the rise and yet in New Zealand, we’ve managed to combat that,” Parker said. The answer was being open with people. Talk through the issues, and the degree of disagreement narrows.
“I would suggest that through how we’ve been handling these issues in an open discussion with the public, and I do meetings up and down the country on these issues, we’ve rebuilt public support for trade.”
Former National ministers had neglected public opinion in favour of trips around the globe. Where Parker now takes around one overseas trip a month, previous National trade ministers were often rare sightings in Parliament.
“I reject the assertion that, somehow, not enough effort is being put in there…I’m doing all that needs to be done,” Parker said.
“Sometimes if you want to preserve consensus with trade, you’ve got to sell it home, rather than just swan around overseas.
Parker has just launched a new consultation on trade policy, which will be “progressive and inclusive”.
How much of the process is consultation and how much is an education campaign is yet to be seen.
Parker is vehemently in favour of trade.
“We’re absolutely clear that New Zealand benefits from trade; we’re a trading nation,” Parker said. “We need to trade with the world in order to sell our goods and services to the world, in order to have the standard of living that we want at home.
“Some people feel insecure because of the way technology is disrupting some occupations, and we want to make it clear that we shouldn’t blame trade for the effects of technological change.”
Consultations will “push against” the idea that not everyone benefits from trade, Parker said.
“There is a perception that trade is for the benefit of large multinationals. It is true that multinationals benefit from trade, but it’s also true that everyone that’s involved in supply chains, whether it’s the freezing worker or the farm owner, also benefits from trade.”
Beyond the supply chain, trade, Parker agrees, give New Zealand’s currency meaning.
“It’s how we pay our way in the world. It pays for what we need to import.”
So what difference will the consultation make? Parker is preparing to appoint a panel, which will be at least partly independent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, as part of an outreach programme.
The group will include both women and Maori, Parker said, adding that the individuals would be “informed”.
“It would be unusual to be trying to engage with women as to why women’s participation in trade is not as great as you would hope it to be without women being involved,” Parker said.
A Cabinet paper said the trade agenda sought a “genuine and enduring conversation”, including how trade policy could help combat global issues, from climate change to gender equity and indigenous rights.
New Zealand has used trade negotiations in the past to push New Zealand’s stance on its values.
Current negotiations are said to include the global issues which Parker now says he wants to build support for.
But the Cabinet paper acknowledges some trading partners “might be skeptical” about the policy. Will New Zealand really lecture the Chinese as it seeks better trade terms?
“International agreements involve negotiation,” Parker said. “We’re always advocating for the things that we believe in, we don’t always get everything we want in any negotiation, we make progress.”
It seems unlikely that anything from the trade policy will represent a ‘bottom line’.
“That’s for the Government. We’re consulting with people. That doesn’t mean to say that we’re going to agree with everything that some people tell us.”
National’s McClay said Parker was a capable man, but questioned the new Government’s priorities when New Zealand was attempting to upgrade its groundbreaking 2008 free trade deal with China.
“I’m guessing that the Chinese Government will have noticed that no one from the new Government has visited them when we’re going through an upgrade of one of our most important trade agreements.”
McClay argued National left the trade deal pipeline full, with progress towards deals with the UK and Europe already underway before the election, as well as a leading role in breathing life into the TPP when the US pulled out. The recent change in the public mood was “less that David Parker is staying at home building consensus for trade, it’s more he’s stopped protesting against it”.
While New Zealand had a disproportionate voice when it came to free trade, that status could easily be lost, McClay said. “Nobody owes us a living and New Zealand can be forgotten fairly quickly because everybody wants to do the deals that we’re involved in.”