AUCKLAND, N.Z.-Tactics employed by Australia and New Zealand to push Pacific Island countries into signing a free trade agreement are a form of “contemporary colonization,” said academic and respected analyst on Pacific Island affairs, Professor Jane Kelsey at a seminar in Auckland last week.
Pacific Island officials involved in the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) negotiations with Australia and New Zealand are worried that they are being pressured into signing an agreement that they do not fully understand, she said.
PACER is a framework for a free trade deal between Australia, New Zealand, and thirteen Pacific Island nations.
At a Forum Leader’s meeting in Nuie in August 2008, Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean pushed for free trade negotiations (PACER-Plus) to begin at this year’s Pacific Leaders Forum in Cairns. Trade officials were given a mandate to devise a plan for negotiations to begin.
This, experts say, signaled a more aggressive approach.
Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) Coordinator, Maureen Penjueli, and Communications Officer, Westley Morgan, say that Australia and New Zealand are fast tracking the process and ignoring wishes previously expressed by officials in Nuie for Forum Island Countries (FICs) to be well-prepared.
“Academics in the Pacific are predicting that 80 percent of Pacific manufacturing could close down under PACER-Plus,” said PANG last November, “leading to unemployment for thousands of workers.
“Most Pacific countries lack secure social nets, such as state welfare, to assist unemployed workers ... “These expected outcomes of PACER-Plus could leave many Pacific people faced with a bleak future.”
Vanuatu Minister for Internal Affairs, Patrick Crowby, said the issue cannot be fast-tracked if advisory institutions are not set up. “How will the government fund its essential public services if we lose out on vital revenue? Depend on aid donor money? I don’t think so,” he said to the Vanuatu Post recently.
Australia and New Zealand agreed to fund a Trade Advisory Office which could support national consultations and research, but only if the FICs did not seek funding from other quarters.
Professor Kelsey said the funding is inadequate. “It undermines claims that Australia and New Zealand are genuine about helping the Pacific develop trade policy to meet the regions’ development needs.”
“Those national consultations not only aren’t being funded but if Australia and New Zealand have their way there won’t be the time to do them properly anyway,” she said. “What we have seen, is a whole lot of behind the scenes practices that are highly manipulative.”
The FIC’s do not want to go into negotiations while some of their members are still negotiating other free trade deals-the Economic Partnership Agreement that Fiji and Papua New Guinea are involved in, and the World Trade Organization negotiations that Samoa, Vanuatu, and Tonga are involved with.
New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, announced earlier this month that foreign aid would no longer be directed to “poverty elimination” but linked to trade and economic development and should be compatible with New Zealand’s foreign policy.
This sort of pressure, says Professor Kelsey, places the Pacific Island nations in an even more vulnerable position.
The principal reason for Pacific Island nations participating in free trade negotiations is that they are hopeful that it will lead to the opening of more doors into Australia and New Zealand for temporary migrants. “That is seen as a lifeline,” Kelsey said. “It soaks up unemployment, helps the balance of payment, puts money back into villages and households, as well as potentially creating investors.”
“But until you get to the end of the negotiations, you are not going to know what is on the table, and the promises that you made in the process of those negotiations will be very hard to take off the table if you don’t get what you thought you might, at the end,” Professor Kelsey said.
Despicable treatment during free trade negotiations in the past have taught the Pacific Island nations to tread warily, says Professor Kelsey.
Samoa, Vanuatu and Tonga have experienced “unconscionable demands” in their attempt to enter into WTO negotiations-the prospect of unfettered operations by foreign businesses, privatization and big cuts in tariffs that would reduce government revenue, she said.
“To date, only Tonga has agreed to pay that price, although a statement out from Vanuatu suggests that they might actually be getting a bit closer to doing so.”
The Pacific Island Forum’s member states are: Australia, the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. Since 2006, associate members territories are New Caledonia and French Polynesia. Fiji was suspended on 2 May 2009.