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Australia's Pacific interests exposed

PACER Plus has always sounded to me like a contrived acronym designed by a PR company to manage what is potentially a bad news story for our Pacific neighbours. That interpretation could well be too cynical as I have just found out that many of the Pacific Island states are acting independently from Australia and New Zealand in negotiations on this trade agreement.

PACER stands for Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations. It is described as a free trade agreement between Australia, New Zealand and 13 Pacific Island countries, which will cover trade in goods, services and investment.

I have retained an interest in the Pacific since I worked at AID/WATCH in the 1990s. Last week I was fortunate to receive a briefing on PACER Plus from Harvey Purse, Trade Justice Campaigner AFTINET,  Gary Lee Co-Director AID/WATCH and Adam Wolfenden, Campaigner Pacific Network on Globalisation.

PACER Plus is far from a household name in this country but it should be. If adopted as the standard 'free' trade agreement that Australia wants, it would have wide-ranging impacts on Pacific Island economies and communities. Job losses, business shutdowns, reductions in public services and a drop in government revenue would occur.

While the end game with PACER Plus is far from desirable, negotiations on the mechanism for this trade agreement are revealing that some of the Pacific nations are no longer the reliable client states that Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand have cultivated. Pacific Island nations are pushing for a fair and just agreement.

When negotiations on PACER Plus were announced in 2009 the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders agreed that the Office of the Chief Trade Adviser (OCTA) would be set up to provide independent advice to the Forum Island Countries in their negotiations with Australia and New Zealand.

Interestingly at the end of March funding for the Office from Australia and New Zealand dried up, one year into a three year commitment. In a diplomatically worded media release  Dr Chris Noonan, Chief Trade Adviser to the OCTA, explains that Australia and New Zealand are yet to confirm whether they will provide the funds promised for the second and third years of operation to the OCTA".

Is our government holding back on further funding for OCTA until they work out how to ensure Australia's "national interests" are a key component of PACER Plus? The media release of the Pacific Network on Globalisation throws more light on these developments.

Australia's wariness of the direction PACER Plus preparations was also apparent at the March meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum Trade Officials held in Palau. Australia went as far as calling for a delay in the establishment of OCTA as an independent legal entity and expressed concerns about its constitution.

The AID/WATCH media release has more background on this development. The OCTA Constitution our government is disputing has been endorsed by all Forum island countries and its governing board.

The non-government groups I met with are doing a great job exposing Australia's tactics in what is looking more and more like a trade deal that would bring greater inequality to this region.

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