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Lee on Radio Australia: Greens slam Australia's handling of Pacific Chief Trade Advisor office

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Lee Rhiannon 30 Aug 2011

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Original ABC story.

Transcript follows:

The Australian Greens say Canberra is using strong arm tactics on the Pacific Islands and trying to undermine the independence of the region's crucial Chief Trade Advisor's Office.

The office was set up to provide advice to the Pacific countries in their negotiations with Australia and New Zealand over PACER Plus - a controversial new trade agreement.

Last month, New Zealand signed a new 2-year funding deal for the office but Australia is stalling.

Presenter: Pacific Economic and Business reporter, Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Senator Lee Rhiannon, Australian Green's spokesperson on overseas aid

RHIANNON: In 2009 Australia and New Zealand made a clear commitment that they would provide the funding and this funding was something that the Pacific Island countries identified that they needed so that they could ensure that in the negotiations that there could be real independence, so they could make an assessment if the trade proposals coming from Australia and New Zealand were fair. And that's why the Greens, because Australia now has not honoured that commitment to provide the money, we're calling on the Foreign Minister, Mr Kevin Rudd to be a good neighbour, Australia should honour its commitment and follow the New Zealand lead, because New Zealand already has put this money up.

GARRETT: You've got some complaints about the conditions Australia's seeking to place on the office of the Chief Trade Advisor. What are your complaints?

RHIANNON: Our complaints are that he wouldn't have the independence in terms of how he could pursue his work.

GARRETT: If Australia is funding the office of the Chief Trade Advisor doesn't it have a right to place some conditions on how the money is spent?

RHIANNON: That wasn't the original agreement, and considering the challenges that many Pacific countries have in terms of going forward with their trade agreements, that surely in this day and age we should be past the colonial background that we've had in many of our Pacific dealings, and ensure that Pacific countries are in a position to make an assessment about these trade agreements. And the office of the Chief Trade Advisor is obviously critical to that. Also what has been informative for the Greens is that we have seen the documents that do show how Australia is attempting to limit the scope of the office of the Chief Trade Advisor around these Pacer Plus negotiations.

GARRETT: Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard attends her first Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland next week. Is this likely to cause her grief if it's not solved by then?

RHIANNON: It will be interesting to see how that plays out because lately we have seen that many of the Pacific nations have been much stronger in arguing their case. Obviously there's been a history in the past where Australia and to a lesser extent New Zealand have really perpetrated quite an authoritarian way of interacting with these countries. And I'd be surprised if it didn't figure in informal, let alone maybe hopefully formal discussions about doing the right thing here.

GARRETT: Australia has shown itself to be pretty determined on these issues. What will it mean for the future of Pacer Plus negotiations if Australia continues down this track?

RHIANNON: Well this is where Australia needs to watch how it's conducting itself, because we are seeing that the Pacific countries are becoming stronger. There could be a threat to if those negotiations do actually fall over, because what Australia is pushing with the way they've been withholding the money and backing off the original agreement that was made in 2009 with this insistence that the office of the Chief Trade Advisor undergo quarterly reviews, and it appears that if they're not happy the funding could be terminated at any point. Now that in no way is in keeping with the original agreement that was negotiated two years ago. So yeah it's certainly an issue to watch.

GARRETT: You've also criticised Australia's efforts to limit the role of the Chief Trade Advisor to Pacer Plus negotiations, and not allow it to take on other negotiations such as those for the economic partnership agreements with Europe. Why is that?

RHIANNON: You can't isolate one trade agreement like the proposal around Pacer Plus from the other agreements that are being suggested for this area. And again the fact that Australia is advancing that argument does really suggest that it's self-interest which is motivating much of the Australian approach to this challenge around the office of the Chief Trade Advisor. And again it's a real reminder that Australia really does need to repair sort of really decades of mismanaging a lot of its relationships with the Pacific. It has an opportunity here and it's disappointing that a lot of the approach that we're seeing around this office, the office of the Chief Trade Advisor does seems to be a bit of a business as usual approach coming from Australia.

GARRETT: Some of the Pacific countries that want to move the negotiations with the European Union to the office of the Chief Trade Advisor are suggesting that they want to do this because the Forum Secretariat which currently coordinates those negotiations is too influenced by Australia. Is Australia's stance here threatening the very status of the region's peak political body, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat?

RHIANNON: There's certainly a growing question mark about how Australia is operating here, and it's certainly one of the Greens' concerns and we'll be very interested to see how Prime Minister Julia Gillard handles this. She clearly would be given a briefing on these controversies that really are swirling around the visit that's coming up next week.

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