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Gordon Campbell on the NZ Herald’s attack on Jane Kelsey

Gordon Campbell on the NZ Herald’s attack on Jane Kelsey

by Gordon Campbell

The best way of appreciating Fran O’Sullivan’s attack on Auckland University law professor Jane Kelsey in the NZ Herald yesterday is to read it aloud as if you’re actually Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey. In which case the general content of O’Sullivan’s column - does this creature never sleep? How on earth has she managed to commandeer the debate on free trade? Are there no men in this house able to put this, this, this confounded woman in her place? – will sound exactly what it is. A last despairing squawk from the neo-liberal right, as yet another of its castles in the sand is washed away by the tide of history. Get used to it, Fran. It's your lot that has lost the plot on “free” trade.

Part of O’Sullivan’s complaint is that Kelsey is an activist, from academia, who consorts with NGOs. Dodgy in itself, clearly. What on earth is an academic (sorry, I’m still channelling Maggie Smith) doing being part of an actual social debate? Surely they should remain in their ivory tower doing what God and Steven Joyce plainly intended them to do – which is to tend an assembly line where bright inquiring minds come in at one end and emerge at the other as corporate drones. Kelsey, bless her, refuses to be a willing accomplice of that process. She seems to see her role as being to challenge the false consensus on the Trans Pacific Partnership, and thus contribute to one of the key debates in society – which is what universities did for hundreds of years before being taken over by the bean counters of the neo-liberal market economy.

O’Sullivan wants some of the economists at Auckland University to take issue with Kelsey, and to say something stout in defence of the TPP. That way, the NZ Herald can then quote them back at the public. Actually I don’t mind this crude attempt at media manipulation – i.e., ask the university vice-Chancellor to instruct his staff to make public comments in support of your pet theories, so that you can then cite them publicly to validate your pet theories - because any subsequent debate is one that Kelsey and the anti-TPP analysts and commentators are likely to win, hands down. And are doing so all around the world.

In Canada for instance, a former federal government adviser on NAFTA such as trade lawyer and analyst Peter Clark has described the secrecy surrounding the TPP as “bizarre and unprecedented” and elsewhere as “a theatre of the absurd” and has likened the TPP to a Kool Aid that’s more likely to restrict trade than to liberalise it. Similar concerns have been expressed by Gordon Ritchie, Canada’s former trade ambassador and the architect of NAFTA who has also given the TPP the thumbs down.

And if O'Sullivan wants to wheel up some Auckland economists to support the TPP, what about the verdict of Professor Jagdish Bhagwati, the acknowledged world’s leading trade economist who has recently attacked the TPP at some length as not being in New Zealand’s best interests, as likely to erode the existing WTO disputes resolution system, and as not being in the interests of free trade – since those who advocate FTAs and regional pacts like the TPP are, in Bhagwati’s opinion, some of free trade’s own worst enemies:

The American doctrine of inducing multilateral trade liberalization by signing on FTAs has proven to be a chimera….So we need to put a moratorium on more FTAs, while treating those already ratified as water under the bridge. The free traders who are passionate supporters of these FTAs are undermining everything that we have worked for to produce and strengthen a non-discriminatory trading system. There is no better example of folly wrought by good intentions.

To the contrary, O’Sullivan’s column runs the sad old gambit that if you’re against the TPP, you must be against free trade. Which ignores the fact that many multilateral free traders also, like Kelsey, oppose the TPP because it is dominated by US business lobbies out to use trade negotiations to enforce their purely commercial interests (e.g. in copyrights and patenting) which have nothing whatsoever to do with liberalising trade, and a great deal more to do with maximizing their existing commercial advantage. That is why the same lobbies torpedoed the Doha Round - in the face of defiance from India and Brazil - and that’s why they are now treating the TPP as a more compliant vehicle.

The truly weakest part of the pro TPP argument is that when the slew of downsides evident in leaked TPP drafts is pointed out by Kelsey and co. the typical O’Sullivan/Key/Tim Groser response is then to say : “No worries, we won’t sign up to those kind of provisions.” Good luck with that. Good luck with getting what you want, without conceding what you don’t want. It is a totally implausible scenario. When faced with the downsides of the TPP, the O’Sullivan/Key/Groser team chooses to live in denial, and to insist that gains for New Zealand can be made without self-damaging concessions. The TPP is all upsides in their sunny little corner. Re-assurance is a political reflex for them, even though the re-assurance makes no logical sense.

Kelsey at least, lives in the real world. It is one where genuine dangers exist that our negotiators will give away substantive ground in Auckland next month on IP and on the purchasing conditions for generic medicines, and on the investor/state provisions…all for a pipe dream of illusory gains on agriculture glimmering away somewhere, 20 years in the future.

On a slightly different point, the Herald’s attack on Kelsey is not much different to the Herald’s recent editorial attack on Dr. Mike Joy of Massey University – another academic entering a social debate at his peril. It's an interesting role for the fourth estate to play - to be about the silencing of academics who deviate from the party line on trade and/or the environment. No wonder so few academics in New Zealand take the risk of entering the public fray. It is no place for the faint hearted. If it is not the Herald denouncing you, or public relations flacks Mark Unsworth accusing you of something close to treason, many fellow academics tend regard your participation as being somewhat infra dig.

Meanwhile, the Minister of Tertiary Education goes about his task of tuning our universities into feeder station for National’s corporate friends. The grim details are here. Joyce is turning off the funding tap on varsity courses that he disparages, while force feeding students into six or eight year science and engineering courses in order to meet current skill shortages on the job market. Smart. (This is happening even while career prospects for scientists at the other end continue to shrivel, and while our current crop of science graduates head overseas.) Publicly funded science is now more than ever, being pressed into serving the innovation needs of a private sector long been averse to paying for its own R&D, and which is chronically dependent on the state to fund its research. It is a form of corporate welfare that Joyce seems more than happy to perpetuate.

Typical, really. For a Minister of Everything, Joyce has a remarkably narrow view about how to make this country a rewarding and productive place to live. Funnily enough, the same Auckland University being called upon by Fran O’Sullivan is the same one targeted by the Minister less than a fortnight ago.

"If they want us to be more directive, I'm more than willing," Joyce said. "I'm watching them really closely to make sure they do respond to what the market wants, and if they don't, I can go and tell them how many they should enrol for each department."

The stupidity of these kind of attempts at social engineering is matched only by their brutality. Right now, we should be thankful for the Jane Kelseys and Mike Joys that we have, and treasure them. Because they’re something of an endangered species.

ENDS

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