PACER Plus: ‘PNG’s involvement vital’

Australian Vice Minister for Trade, Investment and Tourism Mark Coulton. Picture: www.markcoulton.com.au

PORT MORESBY – Australian Vice Minister for Trade, Investment and Tourism Mark Coulton has said the involvement of Papua New Guinea in the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus would give the agreement more credibility.

He said this while confirming discussions took place between both countries in the last two weeks of APEC events held in Port Moresby.

He said hopefully PNG would reconsider its stance against joining the agreement, which it cited disadvantages for its local industries under the agreement that has been negotiated since 2009.

“We talked about PACER PLUS today (last week Friday) and I am not sure of all the issues and some of the issues are that maybe PNG would like to have a stronger bilateral relationship with Australia as well as PACER Plus.”

“Australia is very keen for PNG to be involved because of their role as leaders in this region.”

“You are the largest economy in the Pacific Region and Australia would see Papua New Guinea joining PACER PLUS as would give that whole agreement much more credibility,” Coulton said.

He said discussions will continue at a government to government level.

“I am going to Fiji in another month or so and I will be raising the issue of PACER PLUS with Fiji as well.”

Papua New Guinea and Fiji, the two largest economies in the Pacific Region have refused to sign onto the PACER Plus since the comprehensive free trade agreement which was signed by other pacific island countries last year.

In his speech this year at the PNG-Australia Business Summit in Brisbane, last month, Coulton indicated a welcome suggestion that PNG would reconsider its position on PACER Plus in a strong signal from the largest economy in the region’s commitment to trade liberalization.

“Australia is pleased to be supporting an independent study into the potential benefits for PNG of deeper trade engagement, including through agreements such as PACER Plus,” Coulton added.

Meanwhile, with the government recently admitting to issues plaguing the number of Papua New Guineans working in Australia and New Zealand farms as seasonal workers, Australia says the need for improvement was on both sides.

Coulton said while there are issues, the major hurdle is communication between both governments.

“Seasonal workers I think it is a bit of the case of where we can both improve.”

“My understanding, without going through the details, is a couple of the bad results were I think maybe a lack of communication to start.”

“If a worker is coming from PNG and going to Australia they need to clearly understand what the job is and what the working conditions are, the hours paid, accommodation, all those things they need to know what is what.”

“The Australia employer has an obligation to meet those standards and follow their part of the obligation,” Coulton said.

He said he had personally conversed with nationals from Vanuatu that spent six months of the season in farms in New South Wales who improved their lives back home which is what the Australian Government wants the seasonal worker scheme to ultimately provide for Pacific islanders.

“I think it has got potential and I think it has just gotten off to a rocky start I can understand but it is nothing that can’t be sorted out.”

“I can’t see why that same sort of arrangement can’t happen with the people of PNG,” he said.

Coulton said the Australia Government was looking at a longer-term worker program that could go as long as three years.

“The idea around that is say in agriculture the worker spends in that three years may pick up some skills and technology and when they come back they can really come back with some money obviously and hopefully they will be training as part of that so when they come back and use that expertise,” he said.