• Standing Up for Ourselves

    Charles de Gaulle was a pain in the neck. As the self-appointed leader of a defeated and occupied country, he had very few cards to play. But he nevertheless succeeded, through making a nuisance of himself, in making sure that the other Allied leaders – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – had to take France’s interests into account.

    It was his stubbornness that set the scene for France’s post-war reconstruction, and put France in the pivotal role in setting up what has become the European Union. He did it by convincing others that France was not going to be pushed around. De Gaulle showed that it isn’t the cards in your hand but the way you play them that counts.

    New Zealand could learn a lesson or two from the French leader. As a small country, we are in constant danger of allowing ourselves to be pushed around, like a cork bobbing on the global economic ocean, the helpless victim of every tide or current that comes our way. Unlike de Gaulle, however, we seem to accept, even welcome, that there is nothing we can do in the face of superior power.

    Sadly, we have no chance of defending our own interests if we signal in advance to all comers that we are so conscious of our weakness that we will do whatever is required of us. Yet, that seems to be the negotiating posture of our leaders.

    We have seen enough instances of our government rolling over when told to do so to know that it is a deliberate strategy. We will, it seems, do anything if it means making a buck. Some recent examples make the point.

    So keen were we to persuade Warner Brothers to make films here that we readily changed our labour laws (those laws that protect the rights of our workers) in order to accommodate the insistence of a powerful overseas employer that they must have the right to hire and fire at will. We were unconcerned about the rights of New Zealand workers, or the self-respect of a supposedly self-governing country.

    The proposed deal with Sky City is another case in point. Another overseas company quickly twigged that, if they want more relaxed gaming laws as well as getting the inside running on what – with favourable tax treatment – looks like being a very profitable investment, it is only a matter of finding the right price. Our wheeler-dealer Prime Minister could be relied on to do the rest.

    Concerns about the increase in problem gambling, or the propriety of a behind-the-scenes deal, are – we are assured by one of Auckland’s business leaders – a “distraction”; and we know, don’t we, that nothing must be allowed to distract from chasing the dollar?

    These may seem relatively minor matters, but there are other more serious issues ahead. Who could doubt (as is now confirmed by the government itself) that the overwhelming issue in the Crafar farms saga was the fear of displeasing the Chinese government? The message is clear; we are so concerned about retaining Chinese goodwill that we will do whatever is asked of us. The Chinese will have marked, learnt, and inwardly digested this simple truth.

    The irony is that, in China, business is an arm of government and does what government tells it, whereas here, and increasingly, government is an arm of business. The main reason for concern about the Chinese purchase is that it is not a normal commercial trade arrangement, but is the probably irreversible acquisition of long-term productive capacity in pursuit of a deliberate (and perfectly legitimate) Chinese government strategy to buy control of such capacity in a whole range of different economic areas worldwide.

    That strategy will have been much encouraged by our government ‘s welcome for further “investment” of this kind – something we know from their keenness to sell yet more of our assets in return for similar “investment”. Overseas investment that develops new productive capacity is of course to be welcomed; but the purchase of existing assets, on the other hand, so that the ownership, control and profits from those assets move overseas, is quite a different matter. We are already world leaders in this latter category, having sold a higher proportion of our economy to overseas owners than any other developed country.

    All of this means that the omens are not good for the trade negotiations now under way with the Americans and others. The Americans are insisting, as the price of a free trade deal, on changes to a number of our laws, including reducing the role of Pharmac; and we are also being pressed to accept the right of American corporations to sue our government in specially constituted tribunals if – either now or in the future – laws to protect New Zealand interests, on an issue like the plain packaging of cigarettes, can be argued to be contrary to American commercial interests.

    Given our government’s clearly signalled willingness to yield to pressure, what confidence can we have of anything different from what is now the usual pattern – some tough talk, a period of obfuscation, and then a discreet cave-in? Oh for a Charles de Gaulle!

    Bryan Gould

    23 April 2012

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