Australia’s representative at the Pacific Forum Trade Ministers meeting in the Marshall Islands capital Majuro says the delegates agreed on re-energising the Pacer Plus negotiations.
The aim is to create a new Pacific trace and economic agreement to create greater business activity in the region.
Australia’s Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island and Foreign Affairs, Richard Marles, says the meeting saw real movement in decision on key aspects of the region’s trade infrastructure.
He spoke to Bruce Hill.
RICHARD MARLES: Pacific Trade & Invest, Bruce, has been a really successful organisation which promotes Pacific products to the world, in China, in Australia and Japan. Of course when you're talking about products coming out of the Pacific, out of any one of the countries, we're talking about quite small entities. So, there is a need to aggregate, and that’s always a challenge in the Pacific. Pacific Trade & Invest does that from the point of view of promoting Pacific product into the rest of the world. Chief among them is tourism. It’s doing really good work in terms of bringing business to the Pacific.
BRUCE HILL: The whole concept of free trade and how some NGOs and churches in the Pacific are quite sceptical about free trade, they see it as somehow being imposed on the Pacific from the outside, and it could be to the Pacific Islands' detriment, is that the way that the Pacific Island governments, and the trade ministers, see it?
RICHARD MARLES: I don't think that is how they see it, Bruce. The outcome of today at the Forum Trade Ministers' meeting has really been to energise the PACER-Plus negotiations. PACER-Plus has always been a good idea. If we can get more economic activity going on between the countries of the Pacific, and indeed between the countries of the Pacific and Australia and New Zealand, then there is no doubt that will give rise to greater prosperity and development for these developing countries.
I think that is a message which is very clearly understood by the Pacific Island nations themselves. That’s why today there’s been a real shot in the arm for the PACER-Plus negotiations, which is seeing movement happening now in relation to customs, in relation to rules of origin, in relation to technical barriers to trade, and in relation to phytosanitary regulation. All of these are very important parts of the trade structure of the region, and we've got real movement in relation to each of those. It’s a very exciting development and one which is undoubtedly going to lead to greater prosperity in this region.
BRUCE HILL: Why do you think there’s this suspicion of free trade?
RICHARD MARLES: Free trade involves significant reform and that’s a difficult task. It involves significant change. Australia went through this in the 1980s and 1990s and it was a very difficult process. But it’s one which I think every economist would now say has led to the very robust economy that we have, an economy which has managed to survive the Global Economic Crisis without going into recession at all.
Now the simple logic here is that Australia, compared to the rest of the world, is a small nation which needs to rely on trade to provide for our economic prosperity, and therefore we have an interest in lower trade barriers. It’s that exact logic that applies to the countries of the Pacific, particularly in the way in which they relate to Australia and New Zealand.
So it’s difficult, of course it’s difficult, and it’s not going to happen overnight. There are lots of specific challenges along the way. Import duties as an example, form a significant part of the tax revenue base of the countries of the Pacific. This is a proposal which seeks to change that, and that is difficult reform.
No-one is imagining this is going to happen overnight. But if we can get a more efficient tax revenue base for the countries of the Pacific, one which drives the productivity of these countries, rather than retards it, that ultimately is going to drive prosperity and development for this region.
BRUCE HILL: Earlier in the program we spoke to Tauruslia Bradburgh, who’s the coordinator of the Pacific Youth Network, she’s been in Brisbane at this regional meeting on Pacific Youth Unemployment, which is a huge, huge problem, and it’s only going to get worse, can trade help out with getting people jobs, can free trade actually help resolve that problem?
RICHARD MARLES: Well it can in the sense of making products in Pacific Island countries for a larger market than the domestic market alone that equals the possibility of jobs.
But, the other point to make is that trade and labour mobility do go hand in hand, because they go to the broader question of the economic integration of the region. Now there is some controversy, and indeed there isn't consensus yet, upon how to frame questions of labour mobility within the context of the PACER-Plus negotiations.
But, if you put aside the questions of form, what we've seen in relation to the substance of labour mobility in the region over the last two years, has been dramatic increases in the ability of people from the Pacific being able to work in both New Zealand and Australia - in New Zealand through the RSC scheme, and in Australia through the Seasonal Workers Program. All of that equals jobs, and all of that equals the prosperity that comes from people remitting income back to their own countries, as well as obviously providing employment for them.
All of this is within the broader framework of greater economic integration. And I think that is the goal that we need to pursue. The purpose of that goal is to provide for development and for prosperity of Pacific Island countries.
BRUCE HILL: Turning away from trade just briefly, before we go, I understand that while you were in Majuro you were able to announce a new initiative to help out with the supply of fresh, safe drinking water. Can you tell us about that?
RICHARD MARLES: Yes, one of the real challenges for coral atoll nations like the Marshall Islands, like Kiribati, and like Tuvalu, is the issue of water security. We've been very pleased to be able to announce today the provision of an extra 220 water tanks on the island of Ebeye in the Kwajalein Atoll here in the Marshall Islands. That is on top of 150 water tanks that we have already provided to Ebeye Island, which is going to mean more than 10,000 families now have water security, where they previously didn't.
Now, that’s obviously important in terms of the provision of drinking water for those families. But of course that goes directly to the health outcomes of these communities, where in both Ebeye and here in Majuro, we have seen outbreaks of typhoid, we've seen instances of gastroenteritis, and we've seen instances of pink eye, and quite significant outbreaks of each of those.
It just highlights how precarious the water situation is for coral atoll nations. The bigger question here obviously relates to climate change. We're doing what we can to make sure that we buttress these countries against the effects of climate change, and the front line of that campaign is absolutely water security. So, we're very pleased to be able to make that contribution today.
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