Radio Australia | September 2, 2011
Pacific’s Chief Trade Advisor resigns with a warning for Australia
The Pacific’s Chief Trade Advisor has resigned with a warning that unless Australia and New Zealand act soon to put something of value on the table for the PACER plus trade negotiations, the talks risk falling over.
The resignation follows allegations that Australia is trying to use its funding to undermine the independence of the Chief Trade Advisor’s Office.
While Trade Advisor, Chris Noonan, is adamant his resignation is for purely personal reasons, his scathing analysis of Australia’s contribution to the lack of progress on PACER Plus looks set to add another embarrassing issue to Prime Minister Julia Gillard as she heads off to the Pacific Island leaders summit, in Auckland next week.
Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Chris Noonan, the Pacific’s Chief Trade Advisor
GARRETT: The life of a trade official is never easy but the mild-mannered Chris Noonan has faced more than the usual share of difficulties.
Late in 2009, he was appointed to give independent advice to the Pacific countries as they negotiate with their more powerful neighbours for the controversial PACER plus free trade agreement.
PACER plus has the potential to be the most transformative trade arrangement ever signed by the Pacific but it has been dogged from the beginning by allegations that Australia is bullying the Pacific and attempting to run the agenda.
Chris Noonan found he had to fight for the independence of his Office.
His first day on the job was delayed by months by wrangling over conditions in his work contract that would have limited the financial independence of the office.
Since the end of last year his office has been embroiled in another fight with Australia over the conditions for ongoing funding.
Mr Noonan admits these problems have affected the work of his Office.
NOONAN: Its sort of unfortunate that a lot of time was taken up with the ned to put in place the administrative side and arrange the funding and various other details, and sort out one or two controversies, and unfortunately its distracts the focus of the office away from what really should be its work assisting the countries on solving the trade matters and assisting Australia and New Zealand and the Forum Island Countries move ahead with greater regional integration.
GARRETT: After 18 months in the job as Chief Trade Advisor, to what extent have those frustrations that have distracted the Office from the main game, contributed to your decision to quit?
NOONAN: My decision to resign was entirely a personal decision.
GARRETT: What needs to be done to get PACER Plus back on track ?
NOONAN: I think at the moment there is a need for Australia and New Zealand to decide what to put on the table. At the moment there is really nothing of value for the Forum Island countries. So there are certain opportunities that PACER plus potentially has and some of them have already been identified by the Forum Island countries. Australia and New Zealand need to respond to those, and by working out what can actually be done to benefit the Forum Island countries and, by working out how the process as a whole should evolve over time, things can and will move forward.
GARRETT: The negotiations have been formally launched now for 2 years. How urgent is it that Australia and New zealand start to respond more quickly and more positively?
NOONAN: I think the longer the negs go on without a clear direction the greater chance they are of falling over or turning into something like the Doha round that may never conclude.
GARRETT: The Pacific countries are keen to see PACER Plus be an innovative trade deal and top of their list of priorities is labour mobility - the opportunity for Pacific Islanders to work for short periods of time in Australia and New Zealand.
A labour mobility scheme in New Zealand has given jobs to 22,000 Pacific Islanders and the money they send home has made a significant difference to their communities.
By comparison Australia’s struggling pilot program has hosted only 500 workers.
Chris Noonan says Australia could do better.
NOONAN: The Australian labour market is stronger than the New Zealand labour market and its much much bigger and potentially much more valuable for access to that for the Pacific Islands. And Australia is, to some extent, really the key for a successful PACER Plus negotiation. So I think there is a lot of scope for Australia to think creatively about the negotiation. Labour mobility, regional labour mobility, was agreed by the Ministers to be a common priority area, as well. So this was something that was agreed and put on the table by the countries and so it is necessary now to start moving things forward. The Forum Island countries have indicated they are interested and the areas in which they would be interested and now it is really up to Australia and New Zealand to respond to those proposals, indicate whether its possible, what they can do.
GARRETT: The Forum Islands countries, in fact put a proposal to Australia and New Zealand 10 months ago but they haven’t had a response. What do you think that says?
NOONAN: There has been a response but not really a substantive response to particular requests for increased labour mobility, increased access to the Australian and New Zealand labour market. I think if there is little progress in labour mobility there could well be little progress in the negotiations as a whole, and if the negotiations run on for a number of years and there is little to show for them, it is hard to know what the value of PACER Plus will be for the Forum Island Countries.
GARRETT: Chris Noonan’s resignation takes effect from Monday.
The future of PACER Plus will be on the agenda for the Pacific Island Forum in Auckland next week.
Australian and Pacific NGO’s say Australia’s Prime Minister, Julia Gillard should use the summit to show she is prepared to listen to the Island leaders and allow decisions about the Office of the Chief Trade Advisor stay in their hands.