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Op-Ed by Adam Wolfenden
This week Samoa will be hosting the annual Pacific Island Forum Leaders Meeting and discussing “PACER-Plus”, the recently signed controversial trade deal.
At the Leaders meeting a presentation will be made by the Solomon Islands in its capacity as lead spokesperson for the Forum Island Countries. It will use this presentation to raise the issue of the Pacific Islands Forum becoming involved in the ratification of PACER-Plus by those countries whom have already signed it.
This prioritised presentation raises important questions on the process for agenda setting for Forum Leaders meeting. Firstly, why has PACER-Plus been identified as one of three priority areas identified by the Forum Officials Committee meeting, later approved by the Forum Foreign Ministers for the Leaders to discuss. In 2015 and 2016 the Special Sub-Committee on Regionalism process was opened up for regional priority areas to be people driven with public proposals, yet in 2017 that has not been the case begging the question of who insisted that PACER-Plus be on the priority agenda considering that it is already a running agenda item for Forum Leaders meeting.
Secondly, the recommendation for the involvement of the Forum Secretariat in the ratification is inappropriate. Australia and New Zealand have promised AUD$4million and NZ$4million respectively in total as part of a 'readiness' package for FICs. Whilst the money from Australia and New Zealand covers a range of activities its main aim is to help FICs ratify and get ready to implement PACER-Plus. If the FICs decide to move towards ratification then they should be able to determine for themselves the best use of that money – possibly using it for a comprehensive impact assessment of the deal to make the best decision possible. Moves to bring the Forum Secretariat back into PACER-Plus under the process of ratification undermines the ability of the FICs to determine for themselves how to get ready and should be seen as an attempt have the weight of the Forum Secretariat pressuring FICs to hastily ratify, consolidating the benefits to Australia and New Zealand.
Finally, PACER-Plus only received signature by eight FICs. PACER-Plus was signed in Tonga on June 14th by Australia, New Zealand and eight Forum Island Countries. Notably absent were Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Vanuatu, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia – the latter three countries reportedly unable to attend on account of “transportation issues”, an unsubstantiated claim that some Micronesian states aren't happy with the outcome. Vanuatu's recent decision to sign on comes as Tonga’s signatory to PACER-Plus is considered void for failing to follow proper democratic processes. PACER-Plus is a clearly not a priority for many Forum Leaders.
Papua New Guinea walked away from PACER-Plus negotiations in 2016 calling them a 'net loss' for PNG. The day after the signing Fiji's Minister for Industry, Trade and Tourism Faiyaz Koya stated in support of their decision to not sign "...we cannot allow PACER Plus or any trade agreement for that matter, to limit our development aspirations by taking away the flexibility to support our new and emerging industries and constraining our ability to strengthen South-South trade relations."
There has also been strong opposition to PACER-Plus from unions, business groups, non-governmental organisations, gender activists, health and conservation groups, and indigenous rights advocates. In June, over 30 organisations called on Forum Trade Ministers not to sign PACER-Plus prior to a comprehensive and independent analysis of the final text to determine the potential impacts and benefits of the deal. This follows the 2016 report “Defending Pacific Ways of Living: A Peoples' Social Impact Assessment of PACER-Plus” was based on leaked legal text and found that PACER-Plus would pose significant restrictions on the ability of governments to regulate, have negative health implications and undermine the right to food.
The Inter-Regional Adviser on Least Developed Countries at the UN Committee for Development Policy Secretariat, Dan Gay, was highly critical of the final outcome. He stated that “For most FICs, the significant time and effort devoted to negotiations are not worth the limited trade-related benefits that will result from the agreement. The hoped-for gains will not materialise.”
PACER-Plus also fails to even uphold the stated aims of increasing regional integration, highlighted by it garnering the signatures of only 8, possibly 9 with the inclusion of Vanuatu, of the FICs. Papua New Guinea and Fiji combined make up over 80% of intra-pacific trade, not to mention the contributions of Palau, RMI and FSM. As Dan Gay points out “without the two regional heavyweights, any purported gains from intra-regional trade are negligible. The absence of these two countries in effect also works against regional integration, contrary to the purported aim of enhancing regional cohesion.”
The concerns of civil society in the Pacific coupled with the lack of interest by other Pacific governments are an indictment on PACER-Plus. What is needed is not greater Forum resources going into watching over those governments who have signed to ensure they complete ratification but time and space for Pacific governments to assess the full implications of this deal and make a clear, rationale decision that reflects the interest of the people.
Adam Wolfenden is the Trade Justice Campaigner for the Pacific Network on Globalisation.
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