Labour’s new trade spokesperson knows he has to walk a very narrow line if he wants to carry out the party’s anti-TPP policies without alienating the business community at the same time as he avoids splitting the centre left political block.
David Clark understands it won’t be easy.
For a start he realises Labour could easily be held hostage by some of the extremists on the anti-TPP side.
“I’ve seen the Government actually trying to position us as being alongside the more extreme elements but that’s politics and that’s what they will try and do,” he says.
“Part of it is incumbent on me as the spokesman and us generally to do our homework; to make sure we are familiar with the deal, the ins and outs and then to be presenting the alternatives.”
He’s emphatic that Labour is a free market party.
“It’s unusual for us to split away on this particular deal and it wasn’t a decision reached lightly.”
He believes that some of the extremists are actually anti-trade altogether which he points out is an unrealistic position.
After all, he says, they probably eat bananas and wear cotton tee shirts, paid for by export dollars. All part of international trade.
And thus he believes there is a fundamental bipartisan agreement on trade, even if it does not extend to the TPP.
“We all share the aspiration to grow our trade because it’s a recognition that that is the way to ensure future prosperity.”
And he says he believes Labour’s positions, opposing the TPP deal but being in favour of free trade, is a principled position.
Principles are things he talks about a lot.
Perhaps that’s not surprising when you look at his background. Brought up in the south eastern Auckland suburb of Beachlands with a businessman father and a GP mother who worked in South Auckland, he has a Ph D in Philosophy which was about a German existentialist and he is an ordained Presbyterian Minister.
But he’s also worked at Treasury and ran Otago University’s famous Selwyn College.
It’s a background which seems to make him comfortable in a variety of settings.
Even National Party-loving Auckland business people have been impressed with his willingness to listen to their point of view.
But always he comes back to the principles and what drove him into politics.
“I’m a Presbyterian Minister; that’s my trade so I have a visceral gut instinct that everyone is ultimately worthy of having the opportunity to succeed.
“”I also buy into the idea that that’s both socially good and economically good.”
Not that Labour’s opposition to the TPP is quite so idealistic.
The pathway to Labour’s present position on the TPP has taken several twists and turns but Clark boils it down to two elements.
On the one hand is the failure to include in the agreement provision for Labour to ban sales of urban houses to foreigners.
At last week’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee’s first hearing on the TPP Clark went head to head with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Chief Negotiator, David Walker who is a past master of that ultimate diplomatic art of being able to answer a question at length without actually saying anything at all.
But he met his match in Clark who was demanding to know whether the negotiators’ failure to deliver the ability to impose the ban Labour wanted was because they were not asked to ask for it by the-then Minister, Tim Groser.
Walker after some prodding finally said he had “followed the instructions of the minister as to how to conduct the negotiations”.
Everyone in the room knew that was a yes. It was a small win for Labour.
But Clark has introduced a new theme into Labour’s opposition to the TPP and he is critical of the gains that have been made in tariff and quota levels particularly for New Zealand dairy exports.
“I don’t accept you can support a trade deal at any price,” he says.
He argues that the gains in dairy access amount to only three per cent of the total US and Japanese markets.
“It’s a terrible deal for dairy.
“The gains that are tangible amount of a few hundred million dollars while the threat of legal action amounts to many times over that figure.”
So while he argues Labour would not have signed the deal as it is he confirms that Labour will not pull out of the deal in Government.
It’s this having your cake and eating it too approach which provokes the Prime Minister to claim Labour has two positions on the TPP.
It’s a hard corner to argue for Labour. But he does.
“I think our job is to be clear about what we would have signed up to.
“Were we in Government, would we be satisfied with this deal.
“No, we would not.
“But I think the reality of human behavior is such that it would be more harmful to pull out in terms of investor relations and international relations than it would be not to have signed up in the first place.”
He’s not arguing that foreign investment would dry up if we were not in the TPP but rather that changes in the conditions under which the investment has been made could limit overseas interest in the New Zealand economy.
And the other problem Labour faces from a presentational point of view is that is planning to vote against sections of the TPP legislation in the House.
(That is assuming the Government allows the Omnibus Bill to split in the Committee stage of the Bill. And that is not yet clear.)
But Clark says Labour has got to make its protest clear.
But Clark is also one of a growing number of younger MPs who are spread across National, Labour and the Greens who are starting to believe that we are on the edge of major generational change in New Zealand politics.
For that reason he’s a strong supporter and advocate for Grant Robertson’s Commission on the Future of Work.
“I don’t think any thinking person thinks the world is going to continue as it is and that we shouldn’t be thinking about these issues.
“It’s one of the areas where National has painted itself into a corner.”
He also believes that being part of a generation who were not around for much of Labour’s time in Government means that it is easier to say “some things could have been done better.”
“There is a certain point at which a new generation comes of age and the old wise heads look forward to supporting those people rather than having a battle with them and I think that is happening.”
For the rest of this year as New Zealand and Parliament debates the TPP, David Clark is going to be a high profile member of that new generation of politicians.
In many ways he is only just beginning his career. But if he can walk the narrow line between the Government and the anti-TPP extremists without falling over it is a career that may go a long way.