“Old colonial powers, freed from their responsibilities for poor and vulnerable former colonies, are flexing their muscles and building new empires” - Jane Kelsey
No one can doubt that we live in an age of empire and imperialism. The neo-liberal World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) stalk the planet complimented by regional and bilateral free trade agreements. The attempts by the imperialist nations to open up new markets and new resources to their trans-national corporations (TNCs) are intensifying daily. A global trade system is being forced onto the world by the central capitalist nations to secure a flow of wealth and natural resources from the less developed to the developed world.
In the south Pacific the global pattern is repeated. The dominant wealthy nations are seeking to re-colonise what they see as their “patch”. Australia and New Zealand have been colluding to turn the Pacific into their captive market for low value goods, source of cheap and disposable labour and plentiful natural resources.
The story of Australasia’s re-colonisation of the Pacific doesn’t begin with PICTA, but for now it’s a fine place to start. PICTA stands for the Pacific Islands Countries Trade Agreement. PICTA is a trade agreement between 14 Pacific Island countries in the Pacific Forum; it does not include Australia or New Zealand. PICTA was designed by Australia and New Zealand to lead to a free trade area between Pacific nations sometime in the near future by eradicating the barriers to free trade between member countries. Barriers such as tariffs and quotas, and import and export licences. It will in the future provide for neo-liberal structural readjustment and fiscal reform to provide for smoother access for TNCs deep into the public and private sectors of Pacific nations.
PICTA came into force in 2003 but is yet to be fully implemented. There has been little public consultation or debate about this agreement. The negotiations are carried out in a secretive and undemocratic way. No thorough or satisfactory social impact assessment of PICTA has been carried out. Amongst many of the negative impacts that PICTA will have the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) point out that, “Far from furthering co-operation among Pacific Island states, PICTA will encourage competition between them and could provoke unanticipated discord and tension among them and their peoples.”
If the future of Pacific trade seems concerning then wait till you meet PACER. PACER is the next step on from PICTA. PACER stands for the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations and is the regional trade agreement that includes the 14 Pacific nations in PICTA as well as Australia and New Zealand. PACER is about creating a free trade agreement in the south Pacific that would allow Australasian TNCs to dominate across the Pacific. PACER will provide for free trade in goods before also developing into a Pacific free market for trade in services.
Law Professor Jane Kelsey wrote in 2004 that, “PACER is based on an individualised, competitive, self-maximising and exploitive model of free market capitalism.” It isn’t hard to see why. PACER and PICTA will inevitably lead to a loss of Pacific nations revenue from tariffs. For many islands tariffs on imports make up more than half of government revenue. Pacific governments will be forced to seek out alternative ways of income generation. Western consultants are quick to recommend taxes on goods and services, which will “punish the poor”, and allowing foreign corporations greater access to natural resources and land ownership.
...to the WTO...
PICTA and PACER are only the beginning. They are stepping-stones towards a common Pacific market that in reality will be dominated by corporate power and characterised by a loss of indigenous sovereignty and “marginalisation and impoverishment of vulnerable sectors of [Pacific] populations” as the nation-states involved move towards full compliance with the World Trade Organisation’s neo-liberal trade regime.
The recently averted accession to the WTO by Tonga demonstrates the disastrous consequences that joining the WTO has for the Pacific. Oxfam New Zealand in its report, Blood from a Stone, exposed the reality of Tonga’s accession which will result in its tariffs being allowed at no more than 20%, resulting in tariff cuts that would, “affect Tonga’s ability to provide basic health care, education, water supply and other essential services for its people.”
...and all the way back home.
“There were times that I felt ashamed to be a New Zealander”, wrote one New Zealand trade negotiator involved in the PICTA and PACER. In fact, Australia and New Zealand’s entire role in regards to Pacific trade is something to be ashamed of. Not just something to be ashamed of, but something to change.
It is our role in the “big brother” nations, as we are known in the pacific, to echo the noise being made toady and tomorrow in the Pacific, such as the Nadi Statement of the Pacific Regional Civil Society Forum Meeting, held between October 20th and 23rd, 2006, which recommended, “Negotiations on [PACER] should not be initiated unless there has been a comprehensive impact assessment, full consultation and democratic decision making.”
If we seek to build with our Pacific neighbours a fair-trading system that promotes development and sustainability then it is time to mobilise, to organise and to educate. As the cry of the World Social Forum goes, “another world is possible.” Our role as activists, organisers, students, teachers, trade unionists and members of civil society is to exert our influence over the government to such an extent that they no longer find it in their interests to pursue trade injustice in the Pacific. The power as always for popular social movements is in the streets and that is where we must go to challenge PICTA, PACER, the WTO and empire; old and new.
Omar Hamed is an activist based in Auckland, Aotearoa/New Zealand. In 2006 he attended the inaugural Pacific Youth festival held in French (Occupied) Polynesia. He helps run the Aotearoa Indymedia Centre and in his spare time writes about imperialism, globalisation and democracy in the Pacific.
Claire Slatter, Will Trade Liberalisation Lead to the Eradication or the Exacerbation of Poverty?, Wellington, February 21, 2003.
Pacific Civil Society Forum, Nadi Statement of the Pacific Regional Civil Society Forum Meeting, Nadi, October 23, 2006.
Pacific Network on Globalisation, A Critical Response to the Pacific Island Countries Trade Agreement (PICTA), Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) and the Pacific Islands Forum’s Social Impact Assessment, Suva, February, 2002.
Professor Jane Kelsey, A People’s Guide to PACER, Commissioned by the Pacific Network on Globalisation, Suva, August, 2004.
Oxfam International Briefing Note, Tonga: Blood from a Stone, December 15, 2005.