Joe Hendren

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Trade with Burma - don't cry over spilt milk

Today I will be attending the rally in support of the Burmese pro-democracy movement, organised by the Solidarity Union, and supported by the CTU and Amnesty International.

We need to call for the New Zealand Government to apply more pressure on the autocratic murderous regime currently running the country they have renamed Myanmar. We also need to question our Government as to why they are negotiating a free trade agreement with a group of countries that includes Burma.

In 1990 the Burmese people overwhelmingly voted to oust the military in favour of the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, but the military refused to give up power.

In 1996 the National League for Democracy called on the international community for trade sanctions and a boycott. Instead, Myanmar were allowed entry into ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1997. New Zealand and Australia are currently negotiating a free trade agreement with ASEAN.

In November 2006 the International Labour Organisation announced it planned to prosecute members of the ruling junta for crimes against humanity - including forced labour of its citizens.

Instead of giving the regime legitimacy by negotiating a trade agreement with them, New Zealand should apply trade sanctions.

New Zealand exports to Myanmar for the year ending June 2007 was $5.8m, with imports from Myanmar totalling $1.4 million. New Zealand's exports were primarily dairy, sugar and steel, and our imports were mostly forestry and forestry products. Given the nature of the regime how can we be sure Myanmar exports are not the work of slaves, or consist of the South East Asian rainforest?

Even the US applied trade sanctions in 2003. Sanctions will cost us a lot less than the political damage such sanctions will do to the regime.

Sure Fonterra will be unhappy if New Zealand stops it selling its dairy wares, but given the nature of the Burmese regime this is not the time to be crying over split milk.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bob Parker says the poor are not his problem

Looking over the voting papers for the local body elections one is left wondering who most of the candidates are, and more importantly what they stand for.

Having moved from my home town of Christchurch to Auckland, I now feel like I am behind on years of political intelligence. Genuine lefties in Auckland please share.

One thing that can be of great service to voters is candidate surveys. Candidate blurbs are invariably full of meaningless, meant to be reassuring banalities - in contrast surveys encourage candidates to nail their policy colours to the mast.

Stumbling across the website of the Southern Local Government Officers Union (SLGOU) I was very pleased to find this survey of Christchurch Mayoral Candidates. The two front runners for Mayor in 2007 are Megan Woods of 2021, and Bob Parker, a so called independent. I thought the answer to this question in particular highlighted a clear difference between the candidates.

SLGOU: "What if any example Council should set to overcome rising income inequality in the community?"

Megan Woods: "We need councillors who are committed to the creation of a socially just society and considers its success by the treatment of the most vulnerable in Christchurch."

Bob Parker: "It is not our job to resolve what, in my view, is a political question best directed at Central Government."

Parker was asked to give a single example, yet he failed to do so. Despite being a councillor now for some years, Parker obviously does not know of, or perhaps more importantly does not see it as council business to support ANY of the initiatives aimed at making life easier for Christchurch's less well off citizens.

There is the 70 year history of Christchurch City Council (CCC) owned social housing for a start. In fact the CCC have a stated policy: “To contribute to the community’s social well-being by ensuring safe, accessible and affordable housing is available to people on low incomes including elderly persons, and people with disabilities”.

If you are in a council flat, or know someone who is, don't vote for Bob Parker to be the landlord. If he is given the mayoral chains, he obviously will not see the poor as his problem.

Another mayoral hopeful, Byron Clark, gave another example of how the council could help those on low incomes and the planet at the same time - free public transport.

If I was still in Christchurch I would be happily voting for Megan Woods. Six months ago many people thought the Christchurch Mayoralty was going to be a one Bob race. Megan has run a campaign based on clear policies and it is pleasing to see that she is picking up support for this stance. Even the Press is predicting a real contest.

The SLGOU ought to be congratuated for their survey - its a worthy service to both their union members and the people of Christchurch. Faced with candidates who may slash council budgets and staff, a union would not be representing the interests of its members by staying silent under the misguided guise of political neutrality.

It would be good to make up a list of publically available candidate surveys for all the local bodies in New Zealand. If you know of one, please share the link in the comments. I would find one on the Auckland City Council candidates particularly useful :)

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A free trade deal with the US - at what price?

What concessions would New Zealand have to make to get a free trade deal with the United States? Any rational analysis of any proposal for a free trade agreement should consider this question, yet the media continue to pedal meaningless Pollyanna that there are only gains to be made. Quite frankly, it defies crediability to make a US FTA sound like a never ending gobstopper that will not lead to any tooth decay.

New Zealanders are very poorly served by their media when it comes to coverage of trade issues - I have written a little on this issue before.

Ironically the US publishes a report ever year on 'Foreign Trade Barriers' where it lists the laws and regulatory mechanisms of other countries the US Trade Representative considers 'significant barriers to US exports'. The 2007 report on New Zealand can be found here. So when those concerned about the negative impacts of free trade say they are concerned that the US has New Zealand's GE and other environmental legislation they have a credible source - a branch of the US Government itself. Apologies for the long quotes from the above document - but I think Uncle Sam makes an admirable case as to why a free trade agreement with the US is a bad idea, and even for those who support free trade, I think it shows it is a deal New Zealand could do without.

US-NZ FTA will weaken environmental laws
Despite New Zealand having far from a complete ban on genetically modified organisms, the US regards our current environmental protection laws, including the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) as a "trade barrier".
" independent body, reviews applications for the release of new organisms, including biotechnology products that contain living organisms. ERMA assesses applications on a case-by-case basis and can issue three types of approvals: contained field test, conditional release, and full, unconditional release. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) enforces compliance of field tests and conditional release approvals. To date, ERMA has only approved a small number of contained field tests. There have been no applications for either a conditional or a full release of products derived by the use of biotechnology in New Zealand.... Meeting New Zealand's biotechnology food labeling regulations can be extremely burdensome and is especially relevant for U.S. agricultural exporters who deal primarily in processed food."

The US is also complaining about our "Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures". These are regulations to minimise the risks to our agricultural industries of a disease being introduced that could lead to a widespread infection of New Zealand livestock or plants. I could be cheeky here and describe this as the US wanting to remove the 'trade barriers' on the introduction of mad cow disease!

A US-NZ FTA could even hit your ipod
In negotations for a free trade agreement, the US would aim to stop New Zealanders making a digital copy of music they have bought legitimately. I quote again.
"The U.S. music industry opposes a proposed amendment to the New Zealand Copyright Act that would legalize the duplication of sound recordings in other formats for a purchaser's private use."

US-NZ FTA means you will pay more for healthcare
The US also want to ensure New Zealanders pay more for their medications. The New Zealand drug buying agency Pharmac, which describes its primary role as "to improve the value of expenditure by DHBs on pharmaceuticals". Pharmac has been in the US sights for some years, as they regard the agency as a block on the ability of its pharmaceutical corporations to make even larger profits.
"The U.S. Government continued to raise concerns about New Zealand's support for innovation in the research and development of innovative pharmaceutical products. New Zealand's Pharmaceutical Management Agency (PHARMAC), a stand-alone Crown entity, administers a Pharmaceutical Schedule that lists medicines subsidized by the New Zealand government. The schedule also specifies conditions for prescribing a product listed for reimbursement.... New Zealand does not restrict the sale of non-subsidized pharmaceuticals in the country. However, private medical insurance companies will not cover the cost of non-subsidized medicines and doctors are often reluctant to prescribe them to patients who would have to pay the cost themselves. Thus, PHARMAC's decisions have a major impact on the availability and price of non-subsidized medicines and the ability of pharmaceutical companies to sell their products in the New Zealand market."

Even though its not explicitly stated above, one way to encourage the use of non-subsidised medications would be to remove or limit the subsidies. Greater privatisation of health care services would no doubt help too.

The US Trade Representative then talks about the efforts of Peter Dunne and United Future, during coalition negotiations with Labour in 2005, to make the world a safer place for the US drug multinationals.

Despite complaining about the monopolistic nature of the operation of Pharmac, the US also want to maintain and extend patents so their corporations can enjoy monopoly profits for longer.
"United States pharmaceutical companies have expressed concerns about a prohibition of patents for methods of medical treatment in New Zealand’s draft patents legislation. The industry also is concerned by the Cabinet's decision in mid-2004 to halt a study on the economic impact of extending patent terms for pharmaceuticals. The draft patents bill fails to address the issue of patent term restoration for pharmaceuticals."

Maintaining pharmaceutical patents for longer can only mean one thing - New Zealanders will pay significantly more for their health care while the US pharmaceutical corporations make larger profits.

US-NZ FTA means yet more American sitcoms
The US dislikes local content broadcast quotas either even when such quotas are voluntary. They clearly do not think we get enough of a dose of Americana on our TV screens. Perhaps the US wants to impose more reruns on Friends et al. Ironically one reason Labour could not introduce a mandatory quota as per their election pledge in 1999 was that this was contrary to a 'commitment' made under the General Agreement on Trade and Services by the National Government in 1994. Its a clear example of how so called trade liberalisation agreements can be profoundly undemocratic.

Despite New Zealand's laws on foreign investment in land and businesses being among the most liberal in the world, the US still regard any screening mechanism (even if it is a monkey with a rubber stamp) as a threat to its economic interests.

So next time you hear an activist marching down the street about how a free trade agreement with the US will written by US corporations, don't write it off as a conspiracy theory, go look up what the US Trade Representative is saying. It took me one simple Google search to find this - its a shame the mainstream media appear to be so hesitant to look up something so obvious.

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Police behaviour over the top at US-NZ Partnership forum

At lunchtime yesterday I joined the march against the US-NZ Partnership Forum. This meeting was a motley crew of politicians and representatives from American multinationals who are pushing for a free trade agreement between the US and New Zealand. A noisy and spirited march wandered from Aotea Square to the venue of the event - the Hilton Hotel on Princes Wharf.

The protest was noisy but peaceful. Despite this, the police adopted overly heavy handed tactics. They formed a line in front of the wharf entrance and the protest spread over both lanes of the entrance way, as there was nowhere else to go. While I was there police pushed demonstrators off one lane to let traffic through, even though I am sure this is not the only entrance. At this point traffic could pass in both directors using this one lane without much difficulty. Later, after I left, they pushed protesters off the remaining lane, demanding that people get behind the same a concrete barrier that the cops were pushing people against. It was at this point three people were arrested.

The police presence was complete overkill - at times there were nearly as many cops there as demonstrators. Perhaps when Auckland police commanders saw the scale of the lock down of Sydney during the recent APEC summit they had some wet dreams over the civil liberties they would like to trample and push aside.

Many demonstrators challenged the police to justify exactly whose interests they were protecting. To give one example, one participant at the forum was Richard Armitage, former US Deputy Secretary of State. Armitage was one of the neo-cons who put his name to the "Project for a New American Century" letter to Bill Clinton in 1998 that advocated for a war on Iraq on the basis of Saddam Hussein continuing to stockpile weapons of mass destruction. There were no such weapons, and the war on Iraq was illegal under international law. Armitage was the US Deputy Secretary of State during this war.

While the police were arresting people for resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer (despite no doubt making some technical assaults themselves), perhaps it would have been a pipe dream for them to consider the situation with a little more perspective, and understand why people were upset to have war criminals in the country. It could be said they turned their back on suspects that could potentially face much more serious charges.

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