There were huge protests against the Trans-Pacific Partnership held across New Zealand on August 15. About 10,000 protesters marched in Auckland, 5000 in Wellington, 4000 in Christchurch and thousands more in other parts of the country.
The TPP is a free trade deal being negotiated by countries on the Pacific rim: the US, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, Chile, Brunei, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam and Japan. These countries represent about 40% of global GDP.
The New Zealand protests are only the latest sign of growing opposition and unease to the pro-corporate trade deal in affected countries. In the United States, strong opposition to the deal spearheaded by unions and environmental groups lead to bills to grant US President Barack Obama “fast-track” powers to approve the TPP being held up in Congress. The bill eventually passed in June.
US Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential primary candidate, has spoken out strongly against the TPP. In a May 22 Huffington Post piece, Sanders said the TPP would “substantially raise the prices of medicine in some of the poorest countries on earth”.
He pointed out “The TPP would also undermine democracy by giving multi-national corporations the right to challenge any law that could reduce their 'expected future profits'.”
The willingness of the self-described “democratic socialist” to speak out against pro-corporate deals like the TPP is a major factor behind Sanders growing support in the Democratic primaries, as he speaks to large, energetic crowds across the nation.
His campaign is gaining momentum as he taps anger at corporate power and inequality – even while his political limitations are being exposed by Black Lives Matter movement activists.
In New Zealand, Joe Carolan from the Unite Union, which organises low-paid and often casual workers, spoke to Green Left Weekly of the significance of the anti-TPP marches.
“This comes about a year after the general election where most of the left was demoralised, defeated,” Carolan said. “I get the sense this bypassed the parliamentary left. It's a groundswell of community and union support.
“What was very noticeable on the Auckland march was much broader groups of people turning out. Older people, students, young doctors, heaps of union members.”
Carolan said many protesters were driven to attend by fears already deteriorating social conditions would be worsened if the TPP passed.
“There's huge disquiet about housing here in Auckland,” he said. “There's no regulation at all about who can buy houses and land in Auckland. It's become a real crisis for working people.
“I organise Sky City casino, one of the largest unionised workplaces in New Zealand. But even if we won a 5%, 10% pay rise it wouldn't keep up with the rent. It's a very real bread and butter issue that lead to workers turning up for this event.”
Carolan said there was widespread concern over the future of the Pharmaceutical Management Agency (PHARMAC), New Zealand's government-subsidised medicines scheme. Many doctors protested because of this.
Maori people also formed a big part of the protests. “We are a country that has a treaty, the Treaty of Waitangi. Among Maori there has been huge concern that they've been cut out of [trade talks].
“[The government is] signing an international treaty yet the impacts on Maori when it comes to control of land and water and such are still unresolved.”
Prime Minister John Key's response to the huge protests was to dismiss attendees as “misinformed”. He said a large chunk of the protesters were “rent-a-crowd”.
Carolan said: “This time, Key has misjudged the NZ people with his 'trust us we're the government' approach. This government doesn't usually respond to demonstrations, he just completely ignores them. But he was on the news at 7am talking about the TPP marches.
On Key admitting some of the crowd were “genuine protesters”, Carolan said: “Now he wouldn't make that call unless they were worried, getting feedback that there is genuine concern from people. But it's an attempt to divide protesters into good and bad types.
“This is interesting because it shows that the extra-parliamentary left has organised very successfully around this issue.”
Carolan said that militant Maori-led Mana Party, who lost its only seat in parliament in December, held “a discussion after the election that showed the need for networks that mobilise people through communities and trade unions, because the electoral route has not got this government worried”.
“It seems that people power has. That was the overwhelming chant on the streets, about people power. ‘Power to the people’, ‘Who's got the power? We’ve got the power.' The slogan is 'TPP — Taking Peoples Power Away'.”
Issues of land and housing in New Zealand are often bound up debates on nationalism and race. Carolan said: “Inside Mana we've had good debates about economic nationalism versus socialism. Chinese or Australian workers are not our enemies.
“We've been pointing out the potential that our example gives to mobilise workers in Australia, the US, Japan and even China over these issues. That argument has fallen on fertile ground.
“We want to 'internationalise' workers’ rights and protect the environment.”
Carolan pointed to big struggles against World Trade Organisation policies in the 1990s as evidence that it was possible to defeat pro-corporate trade policies, saying: “Trade deals like the TPP are beatable.”
A series of other big trade deals are being negotiated, including a range of nation-to-nation free trade deals pushed by the US. Other deals include the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between US and European Union and the Trade in Services Agreement, which involves a host of countries.
These deals do not limit themselves to the traditional trade areas — such as lowering tariffs or raising import quotas – but extend into areas such as health, environment and labour and privacy laws. They directly challenge the sovereignty of national governments. The deals severely limit the ability of governments legislate according to the interests of their citizens.
“There's a new generation — so many young people were there,” said Carolan of the NZ protests. “It gives us confidence.”