ABC Radio Australia | May 23, 2011
No strings needed on funding for OCTA - NGOs
A number of Australian non government organisation say they are concerned that Australia and New Zealand want to limit the activities of the Pacific-led trade advisory body, the Office of Chief Trade Adviser — also known as OCTA.
The Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network and the watchdog group, Aid Watch, say that OCTA should receive decent funding and be able to operate independently.
The independent advisory body was critical to negotiating the PACER-Plus free trade and economic agreement for Pacific island nations.
A meeting last week in Tonga failed to take a final decision on OCTA’s funding.
Presenter: Brian Abbott
Speaker: Gary Lee, Aid Watch
Listen: Windows Media
LEE: Well one of the key issues was to do with the funding and role of the office, the office of the chief trade advisor. The forum island countries which is made up of the Pacific Island countries repeatedly stated the importance of having an independent advisory body that supports them and provides advice during negotiations of an agreement between Australia and New Zealand. But to do this, they require sufficient resources so the OCTA can carry out its mandate. And back in 2009, as part of the agreement to begin negotiations with Australia and New Zealand, both Australia and New Zealand agreed to provide funding for three years.
However earlier this year, following the OCTA adopting a new Constitution which established it as an independent body, Australia and New Zealand had yet to provide the second year funding as per their agreement and that was one of the key issues. My understanding is the draft funding agreement that was tabled by Australia to the forum island countries were not considered accessible, because it tried to limit the remit of the OCTA to focus exclusively on PACER Plus.
ABBOTT: What’s the fear of Australia and New Zealand, do they fear this office of the chief trade adviser will become to strong?
LEE: I think one of the reasons is this also needs to be put into context with broader politics in the region, because as some people may be aware, the forum island and the Pacific Island countires are also involved in negotiations with another trade agreement, with the European Union, known as the EPA or the Economic Partnership Agreement and this is currently being facilitated through the Forum Secretariat of which Australia and New Zealand are members. But there’s been some I suppose dissatisfaction on part of the some of the forum island countries and they are being moved both negotiations out of the Forum Secretariat to the OCTA. And so one of the concerns that have been articulated from the Australian government is that this will set up another regional institution. But the key thing I think that is coming out is that is a clear demand or need for the forum island countries to have independent advice on trade matters that have important implications for their economic development.
ABBOTT: Is there any consensus at the moment in the Pacific regarding free trade?
LEE: I think there’s different views. They do recognise that trade is important for the economic development. However, the key thing is to be able to negotiate agreements or a process for which these processes are responsive to their unique needs and development needs and priorities. But a standard free trade agreement which is about requiring reciprocal opening of their markets is not necessarily the best way forward as a number of commentators have pointed out this potentially a number of adverse implications for the Pacific Island countries in terms of revenue loss, in terms of employment and so forth.
ABBOTT: So what happens now. There was no agreement reached at last week’s meeting in Tonga. There’s a summit meeting in New Zealand towards the end of the year. Do these trade ministers get together in the meantime and try and hammer this out or what happens now?
LEE: Well, there is another trade officials meeting that is planned for I think around October, November, but that will be after the leaders meeting that you mentioned which is planned to be held in Auckland, in September. So they have come to some interim arrangements that defer the decision regarding the mandate and the role of the OCTA to the leaders meeting. But following the meeting, Australia and New Zealand have reiterated their commitment to continue funding the OCTA which is a welcome decision, but I think the key is to make sure that funding is responsive to the needs and the terms that have been set by the Forum island countries and Australia should not use the offer of funding to undermine the independence or the right of Pacific Island countries to determine how they’re represented in these trade negotiations.
ABBOTT: Gary, is what you’re saying that Australia offers this aid, but there are strings, almost huge ropes attached to it. Australia is trying to offer this aid, but wants to led the way as well?
LEE: I think that is one of the concerns that have been coming out. So, for example, Australia is a major donor of the Forum Secretariat, which plays a key role in the region, but is also a member of that organisation and that was one of the reasons why the Pacific Island countries in relation to these negotiations wanted to set up the OCTA and have set out the terms by which they would like funding and for them to have a lot more control over the OCTA and over its independence and mandate and role and my understanding is some of the conditions that were attached or raised within the funding agreement were not acceptable to a number of the Forum Island countries.