PNG attacks Australia at Pacific free trade talks

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The signing of a Pacific free trade deal in June has been thrown into doubt with the largest island nation Papua New Guinea saying it favours Australia and will damage local industries.

At the Pacific free trade talks in Brisbane, Australia said it is prepared to offer concessions and will permit thousands more Pacific Islanders access to work on temporary visas.

The PACER Plus deal is scheduled to be signed in June after more than six years of negotiations.

Some of the poorest countries in the world are in the Pacific and the 16 island nation deal aims to reduce poverty through trade, however Papua New Guinea says the agreement is unbalanced.

“PNG's position is that it is not ready to sign PACER Plus, especially in its current form,” said Max Rai, outgoing PNG director general of trade and ambassador designate to the United Nations in a highly critical opening address.

“PNG is concerned that the development of our local industries will be threaten by the heavily subsidised and technologically advanced industries in Australia and New Zealand.”

Mr Rai said 'Most Favoured Nation' status for Australia and New Zealand should be removed from the deal after their “non-binding commitments” on labour mobility and development assistance.

“It shows no genuine interest from Australia and New Zealand in PACER Plus to give special and differential treatment to FICs (Pacific Forum Island Countries), beyond securing market access for their goods and services,” he said.



“I'm pleased to inform the government of PNG is undertaking an independent review of PACER Plus and its perceived benefits and losses.”

Fiji was unable to send high-level representatives to the week-long talks after the devastation caused by Cyclone Winston. It is keen to see the deal finalised even though it shares many of PNG’s concerns.

“A stable and prosperous Pacific would benefit all our countries,” said Solomon Islands foreign minister and chair of the trade talks Milner Tozaka.

“We have a unique opportunity to reverse our marginalisation in international trade and we should do very thing possible to make this a reality.”

“Papua New Guinea, being a huge economy, has come up with some issues and it's important they are talked about.”

“PNG is concerned that the development of our local industries will be threaten by the heavily subsidised and technologically advanced industries in Australia and New Zealand.”

Mr Tozaka hopes PACER Plus will be signed by the June deadline set by Pacific leaders at last September’s leaders forum in Port Moresby.

The agreement will cover Australia's $21b trade with Pacific targeting aid for building trade capacity and infrastructure, and promoting economic development in the region.

Details of the deal's chapters under negotiation and already agreed to are secret, as is usually the case in these types of negotiations.

Concerns are the deal will include cuts to island nation trade tariffs.

“The Pacific relies on import taxes from a lot of Australian and New Zealand goods, and the revenue they get is a huge part of government revenue,” Adam Wolfenden, a campaigner from the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG).

“We want a release of the full texts so there can be a full social and human rights assessment, and then if there’s a mandate and the impacts aren’t too severe, then we can proceed.”

Australia has rejected the criticism from its largest Pacific trading partners.

“It's important to note, PACER Plus takes into account different development levels and capacities in various Pacific nations,” said senator Richard Colbeck, Australia’s assistant minister for trade, at the talks.

“It's very, very pleasing that the negotiations are progressing well. Ten of 15 chapters have now been provisionally agreed, market access negotiations are advanced, and most countries have taken offers.”

Australia has met a key Pacific labour mobility demand on PACER Plus, allowing thousands more workers from the region access to Australia on short-term visas.

Senator Colbeck oversaw the signing with Mr Tozaka of an extension to the Seasonal Worker Program with the Solomon Islands at the meeting.

“We have also have uncapped the seasonal worker program, accommodation has been folded-in and the Northern Australian tourism sector has been invited to join the program on a trial basis,” said Senator Colbeck.

“On 8th of February, Australia announced the extension of the program to cattle, sheep, grain and mixed enterprises, and I can say to you that is very popular amongst our agricultural sector.”

Further PACER Plus talks are scheduled for April in Vanuatu.

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