PacerPlus trade deal still relevant for the Pacific - Mason

Solomon Star:

Tuesday, 03 June 2014

Negotiations for the long running PACERPLUS agreement may be concluded by the end of the year.

That's according to Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Brett Mason who represented Australia at the Forum Trade Ministers Meeting in Kiribati.

Opinion remains divided over the benefits PACERPLUS may bring to the Pacific.

Senator Mason is firmly of the belief that the Treaty is still relevant.

Presenter: Geraldine Coutts

Speaker: Senator Brett Mason, Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Australia

MASON: It is because the economy, let's say of Kiribati or Tuvalu and the small island nations, is that they are not big enough by themselves, so clearly you need a larger, economic community. The economies of Kiribati, they're not big enough to provide for a rapidly expanding population and it's going to be very, very difficult in the future. But we think with a larger economy, a closer regional integration, that the size of the economies of the Pacific at some level at least, can be joined together and that way markets increased and capacity enlarged and we're hoping through PACERPLUS we're at least getting somewhere along the way. I think we are, but I can see there's still a little way to go.

COUTTS: Trade is, of course, an important issue right across the Pacific, but it's been a slow mover when it comes to PACERPLUS. What was actually done about this time round and in Kiribati?

MASON: Well, we made some headway, as you imply, it's taken a little while, but Australia believes that PACERPLUS represents a significant long term opportunity to deepen regional trade and economic integration in a way that will help the Pacific Island nations create jobs, enhance private sector growth and raise living standards. There was agreement in areas of rules of origin, legal and institutional aspects, barriers to trade, trading goods and so forth. But there are still some issues of concern and they'll be addressed in Adelaide, in a couple of weeks time.

COUTTS: What are some of those issues?

MASON: The principle ones, relate to the Seasonal Workers Program and some development assistance. The degree to which they can be included in a treaty of this nature and the degree to which Australia, and indeed, New Zealand would be prepared to go down that track.

COUTTS: What do you mean by treaty?

MASON: Well, ah, PACERPLUS, of course, is a treaty and.....

COUTTS: Oh, no, I was referring specifically to the Workers Scheme?

MASON: Well, it's whether Australia and indeed, New Zealand, would be prepared to have clauses relating to labour mobility in an agreement to do with closer economic relations. You know as you'd be aware, that's an unusual tack to take in a treaty of this nature, but there was a lot of discussion over the last couple of days about that and New Zealand has made some proposals on labour mobility at the last negotiating session and they are worthy of consideration and Australia will certainly be looking very closely at them over the next couple of days.

COUTTS: PACERPLUS, in whose interest is it, is a question I have often heard.

MASON: Sure.

COUTTS: Australia-New Zealand, because they've got a vested interest and there's more in it for them as you've already alluded to, but on the otherside of the coin, in the Pacific, what is in it for them? I mean we've talked about labour mobility, but labour, often when they are big deals, especially with China, they bring in their own labour, they bring in their own materials, they do the projects, then leave. So apart from what's left on the ground, there's nothing it for the local economy?

MASON: The Pacific Island nations accept that harmonising laws and regional approaches is a good thing in general. I think that's understood across the board and I think last time we spoke, we spoke about the Pacific agreement, which is about better regional integration, whether it's economic, whether it's cultural and legal and so forth. I think we all generally accept that, but in the points of contention are, and there's no doubt about it, it's about labour mobility and some forms of development assistance and trying to work out the best way that they would accommodate both Australia's and New Zealand's interests as well as the Pacific Islands. But I don't think it's quite right to say that there's nothing in it for the Pacific Islands. As it is, thus far, I think everyone recognises that there has to be better economic integration in the Pacific Islands, because without that, without some harmonising of laws, it will become, all the difficulties that you and I have discussed in the past will remain, particularly that of isolation, incapability of legal regimes. I think they have to be tackled.

COUTTS: Is PACERPLUS in its current form still relevant, given a couple of countries have joined the WTO, the MSG is broadening its horizon and even the advent of the PIDF, Pacific Island Development Forum, industry forum. Is there a message there saying that need to be more relevant to the Pacific now and is PACERPLUS keeping up with that call for relevancy?

MASON: Look, it is and I mean your first questions were right. It takes awhile for these agreements to be concluded. But I can say this from the time I spent in Tarawa, this week, that the Pacific Island nations, all of us, including Australia and New Zealand, really want this concluded by the end of this year and there's no question, both, and ministers mentioned that to me both formerly and informally. So we're hoping to conclude it sometime later this year and whether we get and how quickly we can move, that will depend on negotiations as I say in Adelaide, in the new few weeks.

COUTTS: Senator Mason you used a very interesting expression earlier, I think probably before we started this discussion the poverty of opportunity. Papua New Guinea really have to continue with the EPA because of thousands of jobs. There's a huge new cannery investments in its bid to become one of the world's biggest tuna processing country built on the preferential access it gets to Europe and under the IEPA. But the opportunity, the poverty of opportunity, I think that's is a huge question now when it comes to the Pacific and I just wonder how much opportunity there is?

MASON: Well, we're hoping that PACERPLUS will be a part of growing that opportunity, but let's be frank, there are inherent issues of distance and isolation and difficulties with communications and infrastructure and market access that will always make it more difficult for the Pacific Island nations. Kiribati is absolutely beautiful, it is beautiful place, but took, I think it was a five hours flight north-northeast from Brisbane. It's in the Northern Hemisphere, Kiribati. It is a long way away, it has an Exclusive Economic Zone of more than three-and-a-half million square kilometres. Imagine just policing those waters in terms of illegal fishing. You can't even fly from within that nation to all the islands, you have to actually fly internationally to get around that country of Kiribati. So these are issues that unless you go there and actually talk to the people and see the issues involved, make it so much more difficult for the people of Kiribati and indeed, throughout the Pacific.

Often Australians don't understand the challenges that our Pacific Island neighbours face and I think when they do understand it, and I'm just beginning to understand them. I think that we tend to temper any remarks we might make about inefficiencies. The truth is that they face challenges that we do not in this country.

COUTTS: There's been a number of articles written recently and Kiribati has experienced its own concerns about its increasing population and its young population, that's something you witnessed first hand?

MASON: Perhaps the first and largest impression of my time in Kiribati I think a beautiful island, beautiful home, is that of young children and babies and the Australian government, of course, funded a new maternity ward in Baso, which is sort of perhaps the most heavily populated area of Tarawa. In fact, just before I opened the new maternity ward, a baby was born, because babies often can't wait, of course, they come when they're ready. But I was told that the baby had been christened New Maternity in honour of the maternity ward, so I thought that was terrific ... 

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