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Speech: Pacific trade negotiations

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 25 Aug 2011

Adjournment speech, Thursday 25 August 2011

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (18:33): I speak on two issues today: Australia's reluctance to support independent trade advice for the Pacific island countries and Australian community support for protecting the Amazon forests. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd has stated that he wants to 'see an aid program that is world-leading in its effectiveness'. One of the key elements of aid effectiveness, as defined by AusAID, is ownership by partner countries who 'exercise effective leadership over their development policies'. Sadly, this goal is not being achieved currently in the Pacific.

Negotiations are currently underway on a regional free trade agreement known as the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus, or PACER Plus, and Pacific Islands Forum leaders in two weeks will make a key decision that will impact the ability of the forum island countries to determine for themselves where they get their trade advice from. At the 2009 meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders it was announced that negotiations on PACER Plus would commence. This decision came days after the forum island leaders, when meeting by themselves, had agreed they needed more time. Prior to the launching of the negotiations, Australia's then Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs had said that 'this is not about Australia, there's nothing in'—PACER Plus—'for us … it's just good for the region as a whole and that's why we're doing it'.

The documentation of the arm-twisting, power politics and pressure that went into the launching of these egotiations is starkly at odds with the quaint comments from Australian officials and MPs. For the island countries, independent trade advice was a key prerequisite for launching negotiations and they had made a decision that the Office of the Chief Trade Adviser, the OCTA, should be established to serve that purpose. The forum island countries—the FICs—as sovereign actors, had made a decision about their needs and went to Australia and New Zealand not for permission to establish such a body but only for funding. Any decisions to launch PACER Plus negotiations were on the condition of funding for such a body. Coherence in trade policy is crucial for the Pacific islands, and the push to have one body be the local point for trade advice makes sense.

There is nothing in the decisions by forum trade ministers and leaders in 2009 that sets the parameters of the OCTA's work exclusively to PACER Plus. The statements by forum trade ministers in 2010 must be viewed through the lens of the political pressures that led to negotiations and are an attempt by Australia and New Zealand to rewrite the agreements of 2009.

The incursions by Australia and New Zealand have not just stopped there. Australia went as far as to insist that the OCTA constitution limit it to only PACER Plus matters and that Australia have the ability to influence amendments to the constitution through decisions made by forum leaders and trade ministers meetings. This was rightly rejected by the forum island countries. Failing this, Australia has offered the OCTA a funding agreement that has been called unworkable. Primarily this is due to Australia's condition that the OCTA only work on PACER Plus and undergo quarterly reviews where the funding could be terminated.

We only have to look across the Pacific to see that it is indeed possible to provide a way forward. The OCTA has recently signed on to an agreement with New Zealand that protects the integrity of the advice and support provided by the OCTA to the FICs, while ensuring full accountability for funds raised, according to a media release from OCTA in August this year. This is in line with the decision by trade ministers in May this year to ensure that funding arrangements should not compromise the independence and integrity of the OCTA.

The question remains as to why Australia cannot provide something suitable. What possible barriers to such an agreement could there be? Why is it proposed to use AusAID money in this way? Any sovereign country has the right to determine where its policy advice comes from. In technical areas, like trade agreements, this is crucial. If a country cannot determine where its advice comes from then it is robbed of the opportunity to make decisions based on its own interests. Australia would under no circumstances accept such a compromise of its sovereignty. Yet through its aid program the government is attempting to make such an imposition on the forum island countries. The islands have asserted that the OCTA is theirs and should be under their control and not the control of all forum countries.

It is a sad irony that I stand in the building that asserts Australia's sovereignty, asking for it to allow
other countries to do the same. I call on the Australian government, when it attends this year's Pacific Island
Forum Leaders Meeting, to live up to its call for good governance and aid ownership in the region and
respect the right of forum island leaders to decide for themselves what the mandate of the OCTA is. At the
end of the day, they are asking only for funding, not permission.

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