The announcement today that the Pacific Forum leaders have signed the Pacific Plan is another step towards locking Pacific island nations into unfair, inappropriate and damaging trade deals. This is likely to lead to even more hardship, particularly for vulnerable people in the poorest countries of Melanesia who are already suffering from a lack of job opportunities, basic services and escalating violence.
While Oxfam New Zealand welcomes some of the initiatives in the Pacific Plan to promote closer cooperation amongst Pacific nations, such as improved cooperation in fisheries management, combating HIV/AIDS and governance, Oxfam New Zealand, along with other civil society organisations, rejects the strong push for trade liberalisation. The Pacific Island countries are faced with a huge range of trade liberalisation agreements, including wide ranging Economic Partnership Agreements with the EU, ongoing negotiations in the World Trade Organisation and WTO accession negotiations involving Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu.
The Pacific Plan not only calls for these negotiations to continue but also provides for negotiations with Australia and New Zealand in services under the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER). The Plan also makes reference to its further extension to an undefined comprehensive framework for economic cooperation.
Barry Coates, Oxfam New Zealand’s Executive Director, attended the Civil Society Forum that preceded the Leaders Forum, and made a presentation on the economic growth initiatives in the Pacific Plan. The civil society representatives from across the Pacific expressed deep concern over the push for trade liberalisation, and called for a freeze until there had been full and independent assessments of the likely economic, social and environmental impacts of these agreements, wider and deeper consultation and public understanding of the commitments that governments were making.
Coates commented: “The Pacific Islands leaders have signed up to sweeping commitments to trade agreements without informing or involving the people who will be most affected. All of the rhetoric about good governance in the Pacific Plan and the need for evidence in policy making is forgotten when it comes to secretive trade deals negotiated behind closed doors.
“The Pacific nations face huge obstacles in exporting their products and need the ability to use tariffs and business regulations to raise government revenue, build a base of local businesses, diversify their economies and control fly-by-night foreign investors. The development prospects for Pacific countries will be undermined by these trade deals.”
Oxfam is also critical of the way in which expectations of temporary labour mobility have been used as an inducement to persuade Pacific Island countries to agree to PACER negotiations and its extension to include services.
Coates: “If New Zealand and Australia were really interested in being supportive neighbours, they would go ahead and offer more opportunities for seasonal work and temporary migration, rather than using it as a cheap bargaining chip to get Pacific nations to agree a trade deal that would be mainly in their own economic interests.”
Oxfam is calling for new approaches to development and trade policy in the Pacific, based on building the local economy through support for small business and micro-enterprises, investment in transport and other forms of economic infrastructure, strengthened vocational training and diversification through higher value activities, such as processing raw materials