The backlash against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement has forced the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to go on the front foot to try and re-establish a bipartisan consensus on trade.
So they have established an Economic Diplomacy programme to let business, the public and even other public servants get access to the work the Ministry is doing in the economic space.
And specifically with Trade Minister David Parker the Ministry if promoting a programme called “Trade for All” which Parker recently had to admit to EU Trade Commissioner Celia Malstrom he had stolen off her.
Perhaps the most radical of the proposals within the Economic Diplomacy programme is the idea of widening the audience for MFAT’s reporting.
MFAT traditionally has been one of the most secretive of Government agencies with what has often seemed a real reluctance to engage with the media or the public.
Former diplomat and now Asia Foundation Executive Director, Simon Draper, appeared to anger some MFAT staff at the weekend Otago Foreign Policy School when he criticised the way the Ministry behaved.
“The way the Ministry organises its information is out of date,” he said.
“No-one really reads cables outside HSBC Tower (MFAT’s Wellington headquarters).
“The world has been through an information revolution.
“Its core Ministries are about information collation and analysis, and I don’t think you have adapted to it.”
He said the Ministry needed “political permission space” for its work.
“You need Ministers, and you need public engagement.
“And when it doesn’t work things go wrong.
“I would argue that we lost on the TPP.
“The Government did not fill the space, and we lost bipartisan support because we didn’t engage.”
Draper’s criticisms have been echoed in the Beehive, first by the National Trade Minister, Todd McClay who took over the role from the TPP negotiating Minister, Tim Groser, and more recently by the current Trade Minister, David Parker.
Vangelis Vitalis, the Ministry’s Deputy Secretary for Trade, interestingly was tweeting excerpts from Draper’s presentation on Sunday afternoon.
And when he spoke to the school, he made it clear he agreed with some of what Draper said.
Vitalis said New Zealand had a history of bi-partisanship on trade agreements until the TPP.
“Then bipartisanship was broken, a very profound moment,” I would argue.
He said that Draper was absolutely right about the Ministry’s relevance.
“Quite apart from the public, the reporting that we do is read by such a small clique of individuals,” he said.
“So the idea of public diplomacy is to share more of our reporting; to share it with business; to share it with stakeholders- and by that, I do mean civil society.
“But it is also about sharing with other Government agencies.
“We know housing is an issue in New Zealand, so we have commissioned a piece of work from our Embassies, working with the Treasury and the Ministry of Housing to develop reports about how is housing dealt with in Switzerland, or in Germany or Sweden or in Vancouver.
“Those are the kind of reports that our agency colleagues are interested in and value.
“That gives us , and at a time when we have been given a sharp injection of funding it is a way for us to explain what our value proposition is to our NZ Inc agency colleagues as well as more broadly to the general public.”
The core outreach to the public will come through the Trade for All programme.
“This is about explaining better what trade does for New Zealand and New Zealanders.”
He said this would include an emphasis on women and Maori in trade because women were widely represented in small and medium-sized businesses that operated domestically but were not widely represented in exporting companies.
Maori business was heavily concentrated in primary production areas which often faced heavy trade barriers.
Turning to the wider global picture, Vitalis said it was a challenging time.
On the international front, he said New Zealand;’s strategy was to embed itself inside the various trade and to have ideas.
“Because ideas are what matter and New Zealand has traditionally been very good at ideas.”
As far as the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership went, he said New Zealand had to sign largely for defensive reasons.
“We were in a situation where a number of our key competitors; Chile, Australia and others had free trade agreements with Japan but not only with Japan but with Mexico and others where they had preferences that were unsustainable for New Zealand in a commercial and economic sense.
“But the CPTPP is also strategically crucial.
“This puts New Zealand at the heart of what is going to be one of the key evolving regional economic architectures.
“It gives us an opportunity to shape the rules that are being constructed in the region as we look out ahead.
“And if you are New Zealand that is the only way we get to protect our national interest and advance and that is by being in the room.
“We also get to negotiate who the new members can be.
“We get to negotiate those benchmarks.
“We get to think whether it should be the United Kingdom or Thailand and how should they join.”
He said the other important reason for being part of the CPTPP was that it supported the rules-based system.
“It’s about supporting the possibility of a free trade area in the Asia– Pacific which remains a priority for this country, and it’s also about making this a building block for the Wolrd Trade Organisation.
“So this is going to be an open agreement; it needs to be open to all.”
Hhe said that because it was an open agreement, it could help navigate around any future challenges that US-China differences over trade may throw up in the region.