Green Party MP Barry Coates
Green Party trade spokesperson Barry Coates

PACER Plus: In whose interests?

The government’s pursuit of free trade agreements at any cost has now turned to some of the most unique but vulnerable societies in the world – our Pacific neighbours. The government is again pushing a trade agreement that undermines the majority of people, social equity, the environment and cultural heritage.

There is another reality behind the picture postcard images of beautiful beaches in the Pacific. Strong extended families and communities means that no-one goes hungry but too many children get sick or die of preventable disease, and the rates of obesity and diabetes are the highest in the world. Tonga spends $210 per person on health care each year, compared to over $4,000 for New Zealand. And the future is uncertain as climate change brings more intense cyclones, sea level rise, new health problems from dengue fever and zika virus and periodic droughts and floods.

As a richer country in the Pacific, New Zealand should provide support. It is our responsibility, but also in our interests to foster a peaceful and sustainable Pacific. Therefore it is disappointing that New Zealand has joined with Australia to persuade Pacific Island nations to sign a trade deal that is more in our interests than theirs.

The PACER Plus deal has been under negotiation for 16 years. It was signed in Tonga on 14 June, but a number of countries chose not to participate. The Pacific’s two largest countries, Papua New Guinea and Fiji have said that PACER Plus is not in their interests, and Vanuatu is still deciding whether to sign or not. Only 14% of the Pacific Islands peoples will be included in the agreement. This is a serious blow for Pacific cohesion and regionalism, and undermines huge investments by New Zealand Aid and other donors over many years.

The New Zealand government has tried to portray this as a pro-Pacific agreement but there is little tangible benefit for Pacific island countries. A fuller analysis of PACER Plus is included here.

There is a target of 20% of New Zealand aid spending to go for ‘aid for trade’ but this is not new money, it is just re-allocating funds that would otherwise have been spent on social priorities to help the Pacific’s people with health care education or combatting climate change. The aid for trade is not necessarily going to help the types of trade that will benefit small farmers or unemployed youth. It is likely that most of the benefit will go to a small group of foreign companies and elites who dominate commerce in the capital cities.

There is concern across the Pacific that PACER Plus will undermine the ‘Pacific Way’, their unique cultures and small scale farming. The Vanuatu Chamber of Commerce and Industry criticises PACER Plus as undermining Melanesian values, and the pillars of sustainable development and cultural heritage. They identify problems such as the loss of government revenue, a serious issue for small Pacific nations, and the difficulty for small ni-Vanuatu businesses to be able to compete with cheap imports.

An analysis of the draft PACER Plus agreement undertaken by the Pacific civil society points out that its rules will limit the right of the Pacific to protect their people’s health. In the past, Pacific countries have not been allowed to restrict imports of unhealthy food, such as fatty meat which is implicated in obesity and the highest rates of diabetes in the world. Women are often further marginalised particular where they have insecure incomes in the informal and semi-subsistence economy.

This is a complex agreement that runs to 806 pages of text. Today, the government has announced that there will be a Parliamentary inquiry into PACER Plus, but with a very short timeframe. Submissions will be due by 1