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TPP survival tactics dominate new PM's first press conference

Tuesday 24th January 2017

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Prime Minister Bill English's first press conference since taking over last month from John Key was dominated by questions about the potential for either a bi-lateral free trade agreement with the US or the survival of the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the participation of the US.

Newly installed president Donald Trump withdrew the US from the controversial trade and investment pact as a first order of business this week. New Zealand spent some six years pursuing the 12-nation Pacific Rim pact in the hope of securing a historic first trade deal with the US.

Now, signatories including New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Singapore are thinking aloud about whether TPP can be revived without the US as a signatory and whether the deal should be rewritten to accept the US absence or kept alive in a way that would allow the US to rejoin at some point in the future. English acknowledged it would be "a significant challenge" to amend the TPP as currently written to remove the US.

The pact currently only comes into force if signatories representing 85 percent of the TPP countries' economic activity has ratified it. That target cannot be reached without US ratification.

Despite predictions that he would use his first Beehive press conference of 2017 to announce a date for the general election, English said he wanted to discuss it with his caucus first, and indicated the issue would be on the agenda at an all-day caucus meeting next Wednesday at Premier House, in Wellington.

He would announce an election date "in the next few weeks," he said.

English said he had also asked Trade Minister Todd McClay to travel to the US once a new US Trade Representative has been appointed, to explore the Trump administration's stated interest in bi-lateral trade deals, while noting that the new president's presumption that any such deal would "expect the US to come out better than the other party" was "unattractive" in principle.

While New Zealand was unlikely to be high on the US list of priorities for new bi-lateral trade agreements, it would be "easier than some" to negotiate with, English suggested. In the meantime, trade agreements continued to progress with the Gulf States and the European Union, along with progress on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a less ambitious FTA than TPP, led by ASEAN and involving China, Japan, India and Korea.

English was speaking after starting election year politicking a day earlier at Ratana Pa, where his comments that the government had "reached the limits" of what it could do for Maori were seized on by the Labour and New Zealand First parties, who both made speeches at Ratana this morning.

Labour leader Andrew Little said English's comments were an "abdication of leadership" and that with Maori still disproportionately represented in statistics such as imprisonment, poor health, and low home ownership rates, there was plenty for governments still to do.

While the Maori Party co-leader, Te Ururoa Flavell, had claimed on Monday that Ratana's traditional loyalty to Labour was "finished" and the product of an earlier age, there was no formal distancing by Ratana leadership from Labour today.

If anything, the warmest reception from the crowds attending the Ratana events was for NZ First leader Winston Peters, after a savaging by the leader of the newly registered Opportunities Party leader, Gareth Morgan, who said it was time for Maori voters to "call out" Peters as "racist" and an "Uncle Tom".

Peters laughed off the attack, saying it was "a long time since I was ravaged by a toothless sheep".

Quoting Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, Peters said only NZ First understood grassroots New Zealanders, and finding a ready audience for his anti-immigration stance.

"When you are bringing in 71,000 people annually, the population of New Plymouth, where 45 percent of the Auckland workforce are migrants, where do you fit in?" he asked the crowd. "The answer is: 'you don't'."

English announced today he would spend Waitangi Day at the Orakei marae of Auckland iwi Ngati Whatua and on West Auckland's Hoani Waititi marae, rather than attending traditional national day events at Waitangi, where discomfort with Ngapuhi iwi stipulations about speaking rights and a tradition of protest have often created political headaches for the Prime Minister of the day.

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