The fourteen Pacific Island Countries (PICs), Australia and New Zealand are meeting in Apia, Samoa this week to advance the negotiations of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus. Significant progress has already been registered on the first day of the negotiations with agreements reached on labour mobility, development assistance and investment.
All Parties to the negotiations recognised and welcomed the steps recently taken by Australia in relation to its Seasonal Worker’s Program, which responded to the long-standing demands made by the PICs in the context of the PACER Plus negotiations on labour mobility. In the context of the announcement of the Northern Australia White Paper, Australia removed the cap on the number of Pacific workers, which was previously limited to 4250, expanded the programme to new sectors beyond horticulture and viticulture to the entire agricultural sector of the country and to accommodation in selected locations. The Program will also be trialled in the tourism sector in Northern Australia. The program will also be extended to all fourteen Pacific Island Countries upon the conclusion of the negotiations.
Negotiators from the PICs expressed satisfaction and appreciation at the move, which has already changed the dynamics of the negotiations and signalled the commitment of Australia to a cutting edge trade and development agreement that would assist the PICs to achieve robust economic growth and sustainable development. Negotiators from the PICs have requested New Zealand to continue exploring ways to make further improvements to the highly successful RSE scheme by increasing the cap and extending it to other sectors of interest to the PICs. It is the belief of the PIC negotiators that these two labour mobility schemes will have a profound effect on the economies of the PICs.
“This is a seminal agreement, possibly the most important agreement the PICs have concluded to date”. “The benefits of the RSE and SWP have been felt in communities across recipient countries, where the injection of remittances have benefited many families.’’, said Hon Fonotoe Nuafesili Pierre Lauofo, the Acting Prime Minister of Samoa and the Minister for Trade Negotiations.
“The RSE and SWP have already impacted positively across the Pacific. The changes to these schemes will extend the circle of benefits to many families in the Pacific and enhance their living standards. The PICs will also benefit from increased remittances and the upskilling of their workers who upon their return can establish businesses, generate jobs and contribute to the economic development of their countries”, said Mr. Joseph Maahanua, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Solomon Islands and Lead Negotiator of the PICs in the PACER Plus negotiations.
The PIC negotiators also expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the negotiations on development assistance. Australia and New Zealand have committed to providing funding to the PICs not only to assist with the implementation of their obligations under the Agreement, but also to address their broader trade-related needs which should assist them to take advantage of the Agreement to enhance their participation in international trade. The Agreement on Investment should assist the PICs to attract foreign direct investment into the crucial sectors of their economies, while preserving the possibility to carve out sectors where there are national sensitivities.
The negotiations will result in a development-friendly agreement that will provide a strong framework for the PICs to adopt policies which would create an enabling environment for trade and investment to flourish in the region. The PICs will enjoy many flexibilities under the Agreement underscoring that it is not a conventional free trade agreement exclusively focussed on market access, but on facilitating the greater participation of the PICs in international trade, said Dr. Edwini Kessie, the Chief trade Adviser of the Pacific Island Countries.
The negotiations are expected to conclude on Friday. The Parties are planning to meet in Melbourne for the Twelfth Intersessional Meeting, where it is hoped that negotiations on the legal texts will be completed.