Gordon Campbell on our latest trade pact dealings, and the mental health review

ardern-trudeauJacinda Ardern is flatly, 100% wrong when she says that most countries are now chasing multilateral trade deals like the TPP 11 deal she’s due to sign in Chile on March 8. The US certainly isn’t. It is busy torpedoing its main existing multilateral deal (NAFTA) and is insisting instead on bilateral trade deals with countries it can monster into bowing to the terms that it dictates. Nor is the European Union, which has scrapped its mooted multilateral TTIP trade deal with the US, and has been busily pursuing bilaterals with the likes of Vietnam and Japan. Even within the wretched TPP 11 deal, the only way the thing is getting across the line is because member nations are weaving a mosaic of bilateral arrangements and side-letters to patch over the unbridgeable aspects of the multilateral deal.

Even more disappointingly, Ardern is continuing with the same discredited policy of secrecy when it comes to releasing the details of the deal. Canada is being told far more by Justin Trudeau and his officials. Trade Minister David Parker says we’ve got similar bilateral side deals with other countries to the one we have with Australia – but with whom, and with respect to what? Quite unnecessarily, all that remains a political mystery at this point.

So… what concessions Canada did end up winning from the nervous nellies who gathered in Vietnam late last year, after Trudeau threatened to pull the whole rickety TPP 11 edifice down around everyone’s ears? A whole lot, evidently. Japan had the most at stake (diplomatically) in making this Mickey Mouse deal appear to work, and it seems to have given Trudeau almost everything he wanted.

As the Ottawa Citizen newspaper reported yesterday, Canada successfully managed to get its culture industries (eg, film) exempted from the culture-related aspects of the deal, by successfully demanding specific bilateral side-letters with every other TPP member country. This is exactly the kind of commitment to safeguarding Canada’s local (ie French) and indigenous culture that New Zealand appears to have not succeeded in nailing down, within similarly strong bilateral arrangements, beyond Australia. Moreover, as the Ottawa Citizen went on, Japan and Canada did a side deal between themselves to restore the original binding investor state dispute mechanisms, with respect to each other’s investment activities at least :

In a sector considered key to the deal, Canada managed to get a bilateral arrangement with Japan to resolve non-tariff barriers, including a binding dispute settlement mechanism, according to an official. The official said the side agreement brings into force key commitments made by Japan to Canada and the U.S. in the original deal, but which were lost when the U.S. pulled out.

And more besides:

The new deal also includes a bilateral agreement with Malaysia to adjust auto rules-of-origin and another agreement was being finalized with Australia, the official added.

The problem is not whether the TPP 11 deal contains a clause that protects existing Treaty obligations (it does) but whether the deal will restrict future governments from freely managing national resources in ways consistent with Treaty aims. On what little we know of the details right now, it looks like we’ll be running a genuine risk, and one that was identified by the Waitangi Tribunal way back in 2016.

[The Tribunal] is worried that the right of foreign investors to bring claims against the government might affect the Crown’s ability to meet its treaty obligations. This “may have a chilling effect” on the Crown’s willingness or ability to do so, the [Tribunal’s ] report said.

All of this rather puts into perspective the paltry gains the new government says it won late last year at the Vietnam gathering, in tightening up (a little) the rules that foreign investors will need to observe before they can dash off and sue this country in front of overseas dispute settlement panels run by corporate lawyers for hire. Within the TPP 11 group of nations, its two biggest players are headed in the opposite direction to everyone else when it comes down to the dispute settlement procedures.

Also, both Canada and Japan seem to be at odds with the permanent Trade Arbitration Court dispute solution that’s being promoted by the European Union, with whom we’re also supposed to be about to start trade negotiations – and you can bet the EU will have no interest in Britain tagging along with New Zealand, if and when Britain tries to join the TPP 11 deal sometime in the future, once the Brexit dust has settled.

In case Ardern hasn’t noticed, the EU and Britain are going through a bitter break-up. Do we really think we can play trade footsy with both of them at once, in the near future? Either New Zealand would end up with quite different, parallel methods for resolving its trade disputes with foreign investors, depending on where their head office is located – or Britain would eventually have to accept the kind of EU-driven trade rules that caused it to leave the EU in the first place. It’s a joke, either way. Soon, Parker will need to clarify just where he stands on the EU Arbitration Court proposal, and how much of a barrier he sees this as being in us pursuing our FTA with the EU. Why should we try to operate one system for dealing with foreign investors within the EU bilateral, and another system entirely within the CPTPP?

Thanks for nothing, Trump

In some ways, New Zealand can thank – or blame – Donald Trump for this latest version of the TPP 11 deal. (The deal is now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and who-ever thought up that name deserves to be sent a stern side-letter.) Why did Canada change its tune? Well, with its own NAFTA trade deal now heading for the rocks because of Trump’s belligerent demands, Canada needs to find other ways to diversify its global trade – and if that means swallowing some of the reservations it had about the version of the CPTPP on offer last year in Vietnam, then so be it.

Its auto industry in particular is facing serious losses in what amounted to a one-way opening of its market to Japanese cars assembled in China and elsewhere in Asia. Late last year, our CPTPP trade ‘experts’ were scratching their heads on RNZ as to why on earth Canada would walk away from a deal that jeopardises the jobs of 81,000 Canadian auto workers – which it had originally and grudgingly agreed to only in return for enhanced access to US markets for its other products, but that will now no longer occur. In other words, Canada had every reason to follow Trump out the TPP exit door, and it would have surely done so if not for the NAFTA nightmare that’s now unfolding. As Flavio Volpe, one of Canada’s auto industry union leaders has just pointed out, Canada and Mexico are going in one direction inside the CPTPP, while being hauled in the exact opposite direction inside NAFTA:

…The U.S. is pushing for a new NAFTA that increases domestic content requirements, and keeps Chinese parts out of North America — but the revamped TPP deal moves Canada and Mexico the opposite way, reducing local requirements and letting more product from non-TPP countries like China into the supply chain.

That’s the black joke about the TPP 11. Japan made all the running with this deal in order in order to score diplomatic points against China, and brand itself as a regional leader – yet, among other things, Japan has ended up creating in TPP 11 a conduit for goods from China (indirectly) into North America, despite Trump’s best efforts to keep China out.

Secrecy Still Rules

As mentioned, New Zealanders are being told less by the Ardern government than what Trudeau and his officials are telling the Canadian media about the end game concessions. Given the CPTPP’s track record of selective secrecy (business leaders get told the details of the deal, the public gets pep talks about the virtues of free trade) it would be entirely consistent if the Ardern government signed on the dotted line in Chile before ordinary New Zealand citizens get told what the net gains and losses are likely to be. Indeed, that appears to be the aim. (Trade Minister David Parker is saying today that we will be told the details ‘in due course’.)

Supposedly, New Zealand’s big gain in this deal is in the access we have now gained for our beef exports to Japan’s hitherto protected farm markets. Yet it is anyone’s guess what the net gains from that increased access will actually be, since the new tariff arrangements under the CPTPP (a) merely put us back on level terms with what Australia already enjoys via its existing bilateral trade deal with Japan, and (b) Canada’s beef exporters will also now enjoy the same access rights as we do to the Japanese market. In the resulting bunfight, who will win what – and how much? At this point, the free trade fundies tend to fall to the floor and start speaking in tongues. At best, this revised, makeshift deal seems to have made some minor improvements to the original TPP text, mainly on these fronts:

Suspension of the changes to intellectual property rules that would have lengthened copyright, and extended patent protection for cutting-edge “biologics” pharmaceuticals.

Weakening of provisions that allow foreign investors to sue the government when an investment contract is breached or when authorization to invest is revoked by the NZ government. The gains here remain unclear though, given the binding nature of the new Canadian –Japan bilateral arrangement on this point, referred to above. And as mentioned, what will happen to these outdated investor-state dispute mechanisms when New Zealand gets told it has to embrace the quite different, better (but still flawed) investor dispute mechanisms favoured by the EU?

The right to enforce breaches of chapters on labour and the environment.

Keep in mind that it was only thanks to the principled objections of TPP opponents that these concessions were won, after the anti-TPP campaign managed to turn them into political imperatives. None of them were fought for by the previous National government – which has never met a corporate-driven trade proposal it wouldn’t lie down for, on demand. However…the Treaty problems, the investor state dispute problems and the selective secrecy still remain. Sadly, the change of government has not altered anything much at all, on those points.

Re-jigging our Mental Health Services

You’d think that almost the last thing New Zealand would need right now is yet another review of its mental health services. Surely, what the system currently needs is action – and more funding – and not another probing by analysts, however well-meaning they may be. Still, the review announced on Tuesday does look (at this stage) as if will be an exhaustive one. Presumably, it will be reporting back on (a) the drivers of demand for mental healthcare (b) the extent of current and future need and (c) the best ways of delivering the most helpful response to the many and varied people in need.

Even without the upcoming overview though, the existing system remains under extreme pressure. For that reason, the government should be providing an interim funding boost to the current system well before we learn the fruits of the review, whose findings are not due until late October. People could well die in the time it will take for the government to get all its ducks in a row.

Mental health is only one of the many gaping holes that the absentee National government left untreated in our public health system. Unfortunately, National’s much-vaunted $224 million Budget 2017 allocation for mental health was largely an exercise in smoke and mirrors, as money got shuttled around from other underfunded DHB budgets. As the joint study by CTU economist Bill Rosenberg and the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists argued last year, the Budget allocation amounted in effect to only $18 million in new money, and constituted a funding decline in real terms.

[Rosenberg’s] analysis, carried out with the ASMS, indicated the health system’s publicly-funded mental health services in 2017/18 would receive just $18 million in extra funding. That’s an increase of about 1.2%, which works out to a cut in real terms. A 7.3% funding increase [was] needed in 2017/18 just to maintain the mental health services we already have, given client numbers are increasing at about 5% a year [Actually, DHBs had told the previous government there had been a 5.8 % increase in demand for mental healthcare services in 2015/16] and more money is needed if the Government wants to improve access to services.

The full CTU/ASMS analysis is available here.

The rise in demand for mental health services and the struggles the current system is having in coping with the pressure – within the existing funding constraints – was echoed last year by the Auditor-General, in a highly critical report on the state of our mental health services. The A-G’s report is available here.

Among many other things, the Auditor-General pointed out that an investment in mental health services commensurate with the rising need is not only necessary, but would deliver a significant economic payoff :

Numbers have been increasing every year since at least 2003. In 2015, a record number of people, more than 160,000 or 3.5% of the population, used these services. Of these, about 15,000 people needed to stay in an inpatient unit during 2015. District health boards spent more than $200 million providing care to mental health patients in hospitals. People who are admitted to a hospital-based inpatient unit for mental health problems are in greatest need of support. Supporting them is difficult and demanding, especially for those directly involved in delivering services, and requires the co-ordination of a wide range of health and broader social services. If the system fails in effectively supporting these people, there are huge implications for them, their families, and the health and other sectors. Getting it right is an investment with significant payback.

Root Causes

The existing shortfalls in mental health care (as noted in the AG’s report) make for dismal reading:

Services were understaffed and fragmented, there was no official suicide prevention programme, money given to district health boards did not filter through to primary care, many mental health files were hand-written and difficult to access, and patients were forced to repeatedly tell their stories as they moved through the system, often re-victimising them.

Unless patients were severely ill, they were unlikely to get counselling or therapy. Those with milder conditions were usually given pills by a GP and never received counselling. One GP [said]that demand for counselling sessions outweighed services by a factor of 20. Some universities had as few as eight fulltime counsellors for up to 20,000 students.

This is only the start. The funding of adequate counselling (and care) barely begins to address the provision of adequate community services to support people with mental health problems. Meaning : the newly announced review will need to go well beyond consulting with current providers and users. And much more will be needed rom the review than a mere checklist on how to stretch the system’s current level of resourcing even further. Not only will the de facto net declines in the funding of mental healthcare need to be reversed. Ultimately, we will have to question why, as a society, we are generating so many people who are finding it difficult to cope with the challenges to their mental health.

Arguably, the answers cannot be divorced from the economic policies that have laid waste to entire communities, and to the jobs that formerly provided meaning and a sense of worth to the lives of so many people. If we systematically treat people like disposable objects, it shouldn’t be surprising if they start to feel socially estranged and suffer from identity loss.

It seems unlikely though, that the new review will be willing to assess the role that economic policy plays in driving up the rates of mental ill-health – even though we all know that participation in meaningful work is one of the main ways most of us bring order and a sense of value to our own lives. To do its job properly, the review needs to identify the pathway back to full employment and to meaningful jobs. Otherwise, our economic settings will continue to churn out more people in need of mental health care, and this fallout will continue to be funded by a declining fraction of the nation’s wealth.

Hop Along, Back Again!

Nearly three years ago, the Vulture website (which is part of New York magazine) said of Frances Quinlan: “Is This The Best Voice In Rock Music Today?”

The question succeeded in drawing attention to Quinlan, her band Hop Along and their album Painted Shut which – at this point – would have to be a pretty strong contender in any ‘best of the decade’ list.

By dint of that cop-out question-mark though, Vulture was also acknowledging just how divisive Quinlan’s voice can be. Call it ‘ raw’ and you conjure up comparisons with say, Janis Joplin or Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. As in: raw power. But Quinlan’s voice isn’t like that. While powerful enough, it derives its agency from the fact she often sounds like an ordinary person driving her voice to raw, painfully shredded extremes. If that sounds uncomfortable, it really can be. By late 2016, her live gigs on Youtube revealed a voice that sounded almost totally shot.

Quinlan and the band hail from Philadelphia. Down the ages, the city has been home to American Bandstand in the 50s and early 60s, through to Philly soul in the 1970s and more recently, to Kurt Vile. Yesterday, Quinlan released a new Hop Along single called “How Simple” – which is the first inkling of the long-awaited Painted Shut follow up. Amusingly, the new album is called Bark Your Head Off, Dog.

For the record, here’s two favourite older cuts. Had to be a close call between “Texas Funeral,” “Horseshoe Crabs” “Tibetan Pop Stars” and these two, but here they are. “Waitress” is from Painted Shut and this version of ‘Sister Cities’ is a live performance of Painted Shut’s final track.