A New Page

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition.]

Note: This week marks the beginning of my second year holding forth on the editorial page of the Daily Post. Thanks to all of you who offered kind words and wise counsel over the last 52 weeks. Thanks especially to the editors and staff of this paper. Your patience, tolerance and assistance have been invaluable.

There’s been a lot of concern of late over the apparent impatience shown by Australia and New Zealand to engage with their Pacific Island neighbours on the PACER Plus round of trade talks. Local commentators have had little good to say about the prospects, and speculation has been rife over what’s really at stake.

The strongest fear expressed by commentators throughout the Pacific is that New Zealand and Australia will use their foreign aid to the region as a stick to bring the small island states into line. Having witnessed the drubbing that Fiji and PNG took in their Economic Partnership Agreements with the European Union, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to see their economic health similarly threatened.

This week, Pablo Kang, Australia’s new High Commissioner to Vanuatu, published a surprisingly intemperate letter to the Editor in this newspaper. He was rightly chastised for the distinctly un-Melanesian tone he took in confronting nay-sayers. Vanuatu has spent years assiduously cultivating a cordial, solidly two-way engagement with its development partners that allows it to assert its own priorities. This week’s pronouncements reminded some of a repeat from the Howard/Downer show.

But, lest the baby exit with the bath water, it needs to be said that one key observation that High Commissioner Kang shared with us in undoubtedly true: As things stand right now, PACER Plus is still a blank page.

It’s ours to write on as much as theirs. Maybe more so, if we play our cards right.

It costs nothing to sit down and talk, and it’s certainly clear enough that the two dominant powers in our region are anxious to listen. We do, of course, need to be clear about what we want to say. And that’s going to require a wholesale stock-taking.

Some aspects of the picture are clear to us already. We know our economy is vulnerable, with limited opportunities for growth. We’ve learned – the hard way – that land speculation is causing significant disruption, and we’re also vividly aware of how vulnerable our commodity exports are. We know that resource extraction is always a dangerous game. Our experience with the tuna fishing plant has done little to dissuade us in that regard.

Tourism is coming along nicely, though, and there’s room for progress there. Communications and technology is still in its infancy, but with recent improvements in communications capacity, there’s a good deal of potential for knowledge workers.

But that’s just the surface of it. There’s a great deal more we need to understand. We need to be able to measure these effects, and to get a fuller picture of how things will look in 5, 10 and 15 years time. This is an undertaking to which we have few resources to dedicate and little money.

On top of that, we need to consider how – or, more to the point, whether – we make the transition in our rural areas from subsistence farming to cash crops. There are some who think that moving to commercial agriculture would do such damage to traditional land ownership and kastom that it’s not worth the effort. Perhaps, then, the thing to do is to concentrate our economic efforts in our already developing areas, and to use the revenues derived from that to improve conditions nationwide.

There are, in short, some very hard decisions that have to be made. And they can’t be made without a solid understanding of the variables playing into each scenario. And they can’t be acted upon without a solid political mandate.

None of this, though, should stop us from embarking on a process of dialogue, even preliminary negotiation. The odds are in our favour.

Some maintain that our regional donor partners will use the threat of reduced aid to coerce us into a position of real disadvantage. I don’t see how that could work. For one thing, we’ve successfully played off one donor against the next in the past. To coin a phrase: Where China giveth, Australia often (quickly) follows.

More importantly, we can always walk away. We’ve done that too in the past. Twice now, we’ve backed away from accession to the WTO when it became clear that circumstances weren’t right, once at the eleventh hour. When it became clear that the EPA agreements were not to our advantage, we said so, in quite unequivocal terms, too. So far as anyone can tell, the sky hasn’t fallen on us as a result.

Many of the core arguments against PACER Plus are based on an assumption of weakness on our part. I don’t think we’re as weak as all that. In any case, there’s no harm in opening the page, and writing its terms to our satisfaction. If worst comes to worst, we can always walk away.