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Pacific Civil Society: urgent open letter on PACER Plus

Nuku'alofa, Tonga


"In these weeks before the upcoming Fourth Non-State Actor (NSA) Dialogue on PACER Plus, the undersigned Pacific civil society organizations express our deepest concerns at the direction, content, pace and process for consultation that comprises the State negotiations toward the proposed regional free trade agreement known as PACER-Plus.

"We recall that PACER Plus negotiations were controversially launched at the Cairns Pacific Forum Leaders Meeting in 2009, just days after Pacific Island leaders had indicated they needed more time to consider and consult. These inauspicious beginnings marked the start of negotiations on PACER-Plus, a trajectory that has actively discounted the concerns of the Forum Island Countries (FICs) in favour of the policy interests of Australia and New Zealand.

"Civil society organizations in the Pacific are very concerned that it is the FICs that have repeatedly made serious concessions on desired outcomes for a development focused agreement in order to see the negotiations progress, and because of the outweighed influence of Australia and New Zealand.

"On two absolutely critical areas of concern for FICs, Labour Mobility and Development Assistance we have seen FICs act “in the spirit of compromise and goodwill” and “manage to demonstrate considerable flexibility to overcome some initial divergences”. That the FICs are shouldering the burden of compromise in these negotiations displays the reality versus the rhetoric of PACER- Plus being primarily about the development of the Pacific Islands.

"The compromises displayed by the FICs are set against the minuscule offerings made by Australia and New Zealand in regards to the issues that matter the most to the FICs. Development Assistance has been seen by the FICs as the vehicle to which they can not only implement commitments from PACER-plus but also to provide the means by which to, address the many known challenges of behind the border issues, and most importantly, to be able to advance and implement any opportunities that may arise. Yet

"Australia and New Zealand have been reluctant to offer any legally binding commitments on levels of development assistance again undermining any notion of this being Pacific centered agreement.

"The current Australian and New Zealand proposals on Labour Mobility, a core issue for the FICs also presents an outcome that offers little to the FICs in current proposals. In exchange for the legally binding commitments that the FICs would be required to make in all other areas of PACER-Plus, on Labour Mobility Australia and New Zealand have merely proposed an annual meeting of senior officials and the somewhat vague possibility of expanding the quotas and sectors covered by their respective seasonal worker programs. The failure of these negotiations to meet the core demands of the FICs is indicative of the overall ill-fitting nature of such free trade agreements as PACER-Plus, to address the needs of the FICs.

"The inability of the PACER Plus negotiations to address the specific and unique sustainable development concerns of FICs is exacerbated by unhelpful current proposals on Services and Investment. There appears to be the mistaken belief that FICs can entice foreign investment to their countries through signing up to binding commitments that actually have the effect of limiting FIC ability to regulate various aspects of finance, trade and foreign direct investment. Research has shown that actually free trade agreements do not bring investment, and further, that the loss of tax income by corporate tax evasion far exceeds the effects of development assistance.

"2 In terms of gender and trade, there is also evidence that any such commitments that FICs would make, will remove the overall flexibility of government policy space to nurture overall and targeted industries and service sectors as the countries develops, and also place onerous administrative burdens on already stretched bureaucracies.

"It is also concerning to civil society in the region, that PACER-Plus continues to be negotiated largely in secret with the texts being withheld from public scrutiny. The current format of the consultations allows for minimal engagement by the civil society sector and communities, seemingly merely a process for ticking the box of ‘consultation’. This is not only a problem in terms of accountability and good governance, but would not seem in the overall best interest of FIC governments, where civil society can be strong partners to ensure the best results in the interests of all Pacific peoples.

"In consideration of all urgent concerns, Pacific civil society groups, social movements and community networks below, make the following specific proposals to Pacific Island Countries:

  • The immediate suspension of the PACER-Plus negotiations until there has been informed, comprehensive dialogue with civil society to attain whether there is a popular mandate for such negotiations;
  • The immediate release of all negotiating texts to allow full, comprehensive and informed input from civil society;
  • Following the release of the texts a properly funded social, cultural, environmental and human rights impact assessment be undertaken to determine the impacts of any proposed outcome.

Pacific Network on Globalisation
O Le Siosiomaga Society Inc (Samoa)
Locally Managed Marine Area Network (Fiji)

We the undersigned Australian and New Zealand Civil Society Organisations stand with Pacific CSOs on these demands: Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (AFTINET)
Peoples Health Movement Australia
2 Christian Aid ‘Death and taxes’ (2008).