Trade policy to fore on Ardern's return

Jacinda Ardern was all smiles at her first Cabinet meeting since returning from maternity leave, but her first announcement was far more serious. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The Government has formally launched its Trade for All agenda, with Jacinda Ardern saying the public’s confidence in trade must be rebuilt. Just another working group, or a savvy play to win back business confidence? Sam Sachdeva reports.

When mulling over how to mark Jacinda Ardern’s return to Parliament, a trade announcement may not have seemed the flashiest option for the Prime Minister.

Yet worthy but dull may have been the best starting point as Ardern’s Government seeks to boost the confidence levels of Kiwi businesses wary of uncertainty around reforms.

Announcing the formal launch of the Trade for All agenda, Ardern was quick to point to fears of a trade war and broader global uncertainty as one of the reasons for the negative business numbers.

“I have no doubt that those shifts and that global uncertainty has contributed to some of what we’re seeing around business confidence.”

She said the Government was keen to avoid a backlash against globalisation, pointing to the discontent over the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal while Labour was in opposition (a dead rat, albeit one with a new name, the party and its coalition partners swallowed late last year).

Ardern said the benefits of trade needed to be spread evenly, with SMEs, women, Maori and regional Kiwis among those in need of particular support.

Along with statistics which the National Government may have rolled out - 620,000 people reliant on exports for the livelihood, exporting firms 36 percent more productive than their non-exporting equivalents - there was a nod to the unease that some of the Government’s supporters may be feeling.

“We should feel comfortable that we are not unduly compromising our values and sovereignty in order to gain greater market access,” Ardern said.

Trade and Export Growth Minister David Parker was equally cautious, saying the Government was taking nothing for granted as it tried to rebuild the case for trade.

Parker placed some of the blame on the National Government for its handling of the TPP negotiations, saying he had found it difficult to get much information out of then-Trade Minister Tim Groser as he oversaw the work.

“Not only were there criticisms of how secret the process was...there was also a feeling there wasn’t much outreach to the people of New Zealand to assuage their concerns and to listen to their criticisms.”

Although he gave Groser’s successor Todd McClay some credit for improving trade transparency, Parker said his own Government had taken that much further, running a number of public meetings around the country.

Picking up some of that that consultation work will be a Trade for All advisory board, chaired by former New Zealand diplomat David Pine.

Although the remaining board members have not been chosen, Pine said it would be vital to include trade sceptics and cynics.

“We’ve got a significant group of New Zealanders have lost confidence, we’ve got to hear from them, we've got to really understand what those concerns are and there’s no point in the process if it doesn’t engage with people who are critical.”

Public meetings will be held around the country from mid-August to October, with the results of the feedback - along with the board’s recommendations - due to be be presented to Cabinet by June next year.

Of course, trade talks are not standing still in the meantime, a fact not lost on Pine who said the board would work closely with MFAT and share feedback as it came in.

“Ideally we’d stop the world and take some time out and set it all up and then start the world again, but we’re in that familiar place where we always are, of building the boat and sailing it at the same time.”

Ardern highlighted progress on trade talks with the EU, the Pacific Alliance, and RCEP, along with work on upgraded deals with China and Singapore and preliminary discussions with the UK.

That wasn’t an argument that found favour with National: trade spokesman McClay said his party had already started work on a number of those deals, while his leader Simon Bridges described the launch as “meaningless marketing”.

“It’s talk, it’s words, it’s jargon over action, progress for New Zealand...yet another working group on top of, I think it’s 135 at the moment, it isn’t the answer.”

Bridges said FTA upgrades with China and Singapore appeared to have gone backwards as a result of the Government’s actions - although Parker told media both were still on track.