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FORUM RUNS AMOK
The widely distributed complaints over the last few weeks by Pacific islands trade officials that the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, which is supposed to co-ordinate their activities on trade negotiations with the EU, seems incapable of even preparing a letter for Minister Hans Joachim Kiel of Samoa (PACP lead spokesperson) to congratulate Commissioner De Grucht six months after he was appointed the EU’s trade commissioner, constitutes yet another low point in the Forum’s management of the region’s trade affairs.
Indeed one could possibly put this down to the sheer incompetence of Secretary-General Tuiloma Neroni Slade’s team. But mistakes like this are rarely accidental and are more often the product of a policy agenda.
When I worked at the Forum last year, one of the most enduring complaints from Australia and New Zealand was the fact that the trade work drew its mandate from two separate sources—one from the Forum which included Australia and New Zealand, and the other from the EU-funded Pacific ACP group which included only the 14 Pacific islands.
This was deeply resented by Australia simply because the Forum works on consensus and the fact that the islands would provide a consensus on trade issues and prior to the ACP group, Australia could effectively veto anything they did not like. But what the ACP negotiations provided to the islands for the first time in their history was a relatively well funded mechanism by which they could come to decisions in their own interests without having to appease Canberra and Wellington. This sort of independence by Canberra’s vassal states in the Pacific islands i.e. what it sees as ‘its lake’, was unacceptable to their policy makers.
During my time, I worked together with islands officials to develop programmes that would help them directly in their trade negotiations. The first of these was a programme of independent policy advice that was to be provided in capitals through a Commonwealth funded programme called the ‘Hub and Spoke’ programme to give many islands member states policy advice that did not come from Canberra.
The second was to commence negotiations with China and Taiwan on a trade arrangement. This would mean there would be a decade where Pacific islands trade officials would be negotiating amongst themselves to deepen PICTA, their own trade agreement, and to negotiate simultaneously with the EU, Australia and New Zealand and China.
This offered the best option for getting a good deal and making sure that Canberra did not in effect get carte blanche to write whatever trade agreement that was in its interests.
Since I have left the Forum, Secretary-General Tuiloma’s underlings have slowly dismantled the system of independent advice to the Pacific islands.
They openly talk of putting young Australian graduates into Pacific islands capitals rather than the ones from UK under the ODI scheme which is universally respected by the Pacific islands.
The whole Hub and Spoke programme is slowly being dismantled and the University of Adelaide is now providing all the necessary re-education that Pacific islands trade officials need (Repeat after me—Free Trade with Australia and New Zealand is good for development!)
But most importantly, what has become of the China policy that I helped initiate in my tenure at the Forum? It is now completely in abeyance precisely because the Forum needs to exist to serve Canberra’s interest. In fact, the complete failure of leadership of the Forum in the EU negotiations is not a mistake but simply serves Australia’s interests.
What serves Australia’s interest is the prospect that many of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement will sign the EPA with the EU just to get market access for chilled fish by allowing Asian vessels to fish for chilled fish in their waters and then export to the EU.
What could Australia want more than such a short-sighted decision. Even if Nauru or Kiribati got what PNG and Fiji got in terms of global sourcing for their tuna during the interim EPA negotiations two years ago, they still will not be able to sell their fish because they do not have what is called a competent authority to assure compliance with EU health and food standards, they do not have air links and they have no market expertise.
They will end up being suppliers to PNG and Fiji who do have air links and an EU recognised competent authority.
Australia would love this because then they would turn around to the Parties to the Nauru Agreement and say, ‘well if you are willing to offer free trade to the EU for such a small concession that the EU will be able to withdraw at any time, then why not a similarly small concession to us to get free trade’.
There are Australian commercial interests in PNG that run trade policy in that country—it is a strange situation where government officials are utterly powerless and sit in the back of meetings like so many schoolboys. It has long been the talk of the Forum.
These businessmen have in the past sabotaged the EPA negotiations by negotiating behind the backs of other Pacific islanders and completely undermined Pacific solidarity.
The only interest of these individuals is PNG fish and sabotaging a joint effort by all Forum islands countries only serves those commercial interests because it will bring the other islands in as suppliers to the PNG-based facilities.
The small islands states have other interests in trade negotiations—especially labour movement and aid. By agreeing to an EPA with almost nothing in it, they will create an inescapably bad legal precedent for the PACER negotiations which does not concern these PNG-based business interests.
The direction that the Forum is taking cannot be seen as in the interests of the islands. It is because of this widespread perception that the institution has become openly and unambiguously an instrument of Australian and New Zealand power in the Pacific that we are seeing the Parties to the Nauru Agreement even thinking about negotiating as a sub-group in tarred negotiations (see October ISLANDS BUSINESS).
Simply, the Forum can no longer be trusted to represent the islands’ interests! In 20 years of working off-and-on at the Forum or based there, I have had the pleasure (sometimes less than pleasure) of working for every Secretary-General since the formation of the organisation.
One of the first received a prize from the Australians when he finished. I have no doubt that Tuiloma Neroni Slade, the most educated and erudite of the five I have served, will also get a prize for his services to Australia when he finishes his tenure. .. Article From Islands Business International Magazine, November 2010 Issue, website: http://www.islandsbusiness.com
• The author was, until March 2009 when his contract was not renewed, the Director of Economic Governance, Pacific Islands Forum. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the staff of the Forum Secretariat.
SOURCE: ISLANDS BUSINESS INTERNATIONAL MAGAZINE/PACNEWS
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