New Zealand’s new Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, returned from her first international summit with great news for Kiwis who appreciate how much we rely on foreign consumers: The Trans-Pacific Partnership, she said, “is a damned sight better than what we had when we started.”
I already thought TPP was pretty good. An 11-nation trade agreement, it promises to expand economic opportunities around our region.
I think about this all the time: As a fourth-generation sheep and beef farmer in the hills of the Kakanui Mountains, in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island, I depend on exports. If people in Japan and other faraway places don’t buy our meat, our business will fail.
And it’s not just me. Without these sales, New Zealand’s economy would collapse, starting with agriculture. Our national population is just 4.6 million, but we produce enough food to feed more than 40 million. That’s the equivalent of having the people who live around the San Francisco Bay supplying the food for everybody in California.
New Zealand must face outward, and our livelihood depends on customers we’ll never meet in countries that most of us never will visit.
So we’ve been watching PM Ardern closely, who hadn’t been exactly our country’s leading champion of free trade.
In October, her Labour Party came in second in national elections—and then, with an element of surprise to our farming community, leapfrogged the top-finishing incumbent National Party. Ardern worked with others to piece together a governing coalition. Now she’s in charge.
As a candidate, she had spoken critically of TPP, causing many of us to worry that she was searching for an excuse to withdraw from the talks, much as Donald Trump did following his election as U.S. President. The Wall Street Journal even compared her to Trump because both leaders want to reduce immigration.
PM Ardern objected to the association: Whereas Trump is a famous capitalist, she is a former president of the International Union of Socialist Youth.
Yet the Journal made a valid point, and it seemed to many of us that PM Ardern was even laying the groundwork for quitting TPP, using as a pretext her demand that New Zealand preserve the right to limit the ability of non-resident foreigners to purchase homes.
To complicate matters, her Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, is a longtime skeptic of international trade. In October, he suggested that he sympathizes with New Zealanders who view “today’s capitalism not as their friend but as their foe.”
In recent weeks, however, PM Ardern has spoken favorably of TPP. On her return from meetings with global leaders in Vietnam and the Philippines, in an interview with the New Zealand Herald, she sounded guardedly optimistic about the trade deal: “We certainly made progress and I was pleased about that.”
The present hope is that TPP talks will move toward a final agreement, possibly in March.
We need these new opportunities. Margins in our pastoral farming system are very low. We face high production costs, high regulatory costs and high costs to maintain our level of strict environmental practices. We’re dedicated to environmentally sustainable agriculture, which includes no-tillage production for our forage crops. We also care for 100,000 trees on our 3,500 acres. Other commitments include animal welfare and biosecurity.
While we deem these costs worthwhile, they also demand that we run at maximum efficiency and deliver our premium products to global markets at key times of the year.
I love the farming life, including its challenges, but it’s tough—and we need allies in public office. We’re ready to work with politicians who are willing to work with us, no matter what their party. As farmers, it is essential that we get very close to the new government and make sure they understand the importance of a strong link with the grass roots of New Zealand.
Yet we cannot compromise on trade. Our engagement on this issue has led to concrete success in recent years. Since 2006, for example, we’ve quadrupled our exports to China, thanks to a new trade agreement.
New Zealand’s economic wellbeing depends on political leaders who will search out new ways for us to sell to the world. TPP provides an excellent chance to do just that.
So I’m happy to settle for a TPP that PM Ardern praises as “a damned sight better” than what it was before her latest meetings.
Now let’s get it done.