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Civil society says not to begin negotiations

By Charlina Tone

APIA, Samoa (Newsline Samoa Newspaper, June 17, 2009) – Members of civil society groups, churches and trade unions from around the Pacific are recommending trade ministers not to rush into any negotiations regarding the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations.

The PACER plus which features prominently in the discussions of the Forum Trade Minister Meeting still needs time to be researched and consultations should be carried out according to Professor Jane Kelsey of Auckland University.

The primary objective of New Zealand government is to secure long-term entry into Pacific island countries especially for employment reasons on a temporary basis.

A quota in the agreement will allow skilled workers to come work in Samoa however Samoans are bound by tight restrictions for the process to work both ways. For example Samoans willing to work in New Zealand would have to have a qualification which is recognized in New Zealand and Australia."

At a press conference yesterday more than 30 civil society groups from the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia explained a joint statement they launched on the eve of the annual Pacific Island forum Trade Ministers Meeting expressing concerns about any decisions to enter negotiations for a new Pacific wide free trade agreement (PACER-plus).

It calls on Ministers to put the developmental priorities of the Pacific ahead of the Pacific ahead of political timelines.

The Pacific Trade Ministers will come under pressure this week to recommend the launching of PACER-Plus negotiations when Australia hosts the Pacific islands Forum Leaders Meeting in Cairns in August.

The civil society organizations, churches and trade unions want time for Pacific countries to undertake national consultations and research before formal negotiations are even considered.

"There needs to be first and foremost a consultation with all sectors of the Pacific community," said Pacific Network on Globalization (PANG) coordinator Maureen Penjuelli.

Ms Penjuelli says that rushing into negotiations would only lead to a bad agreement.

"We need to have a discussion and debate around the impacts of a potential PACER-Plus, then and only if there is an agreement to the idea should we enter into PACER-Plus negotiations."

Ms Penjuelli said Pacific governments had outlined the need for such an approach in a draft roadmap for negotiations, but Australia and New Zealand had rejected this approach and were instead demanding negotiations to be fast tracked.

"The Pacific’s draft roadmap said negotiations might begin in 2013, and now Pacific Ministers are being told to launch negotiations this year."

Adam Wolfenden from the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET) highlighted the issue of capacity of Pacific Island countries to enter into negotiations.

"In line with what the Pacific are asking for, Australia and New Zealand must adequately support an independent an independent and meaningful Office of chief trade advisor (OCTA), said Mr Wolfenden.

"This means the office must have staffing capacity to support Pacific countries to assess the costs and benefits of PACER-Plus, and act as a negotiating point of contact. Australia and New Zealand should also have no say in the governance of the OCTA.

It would be absurd to have a negotiating partner in charge of your negotiating capacity, Australia would not accept that and neither should Australia demand it."

Local Samoan NGO representative, Fiu Elisara of the O le Siosiomaga Society, said that for Samoa, signing up to PACER-plus would see an enormous loss in government revenue.

"Expected revenue losses from tariff reductions under PACER-Plus would see Samoa lose the equivalent of our national health budget," said Mr Elisara.

"We just cut our health and education budgets for the next year in response to the financial crisis. Now is not the time to be jeopardizing government revenues."

President of the Samoa Hotel Association Nanette Sass speaking as part of the civil service says trade is good but never when we are pressured into it. "How I see it, Samoa is being bullied into signing."

She says our country does not have the full capacity to understand the impacts of the agreement. "It is our responsibility as people in the know to warn the public against it. It scares the hell out of me as a taxpayer. VAGST although not mentioned in the budget to increase will definitely increase as a result of this agreement. The poor people will suffer the most as they are already struggling."

A research conducted by Dr Bill Rosenberg, stated that Samoa can lose up to $10 million if we sign the agreement. "Taxes will increase to fill this void."

The forum trade ministers will focus heavily on PACER-Plus discussions and possible regional future operations of the Regional Trade Facilitation Programme (RTFP) under PACER and the deepening of trade and economic cooperation among all forum members.

In a press release issued for the Forum Trade Ministers Meeting it states that in response to a directive from Forum Leaders made at the meeting in Niue last year, it is expected that Forum Trade Ministers will consider proposals from Forum officials relating to a road map to guide PACER plus negotiations between Forum members.

"Forum leaders wish to move the PACER plus process forward and Ministers and officials have been working hard since the 2008 Leaders meeting to present positive recommendations in that regard for Leaders to consider when they next meet in Cairns," says Tuiloma Neroni Slade, Secretary General of the Forum Secretariat.

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