ACTA Without an Audience

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

News has leaked out in dribs and drabs over the last several months about a US-led drive to negotiate an international treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA. Conducted under a veil of secrecy, these negotiations have been the source of considerable speculation and not a little alarm among advocates of online freedom.

Part of the reason for the alarm is the utter lack of publicly verifiable information concerning the content of the treaty. When US organisations attempted to gain access to a copy of the draft, their government withheld them, citing national security, of all things.

Intellectual Property expert professor Michael Geist writes, “The United States has drafted the chapter under enormous secrecy, with selected groups granted access under strict non-disclosure agreements and other countries (including Canada) given physical, watermarked copies designed to guard against leaks.”

In spite of their best efforts, however, details of the online enforcement aspects of the treaty leaked out last week, following a negotiating round in Seoul, South Korea.

The details don’t look good.

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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.

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Harbour, not Hideout

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

A prominent US liberal blog recently ran a story, titled “So Go Already” that captured in a nutshell the deep resentment that many, Americans especially, are feeling toward those captains of enterprise who continued to receive massive payouts even as the financial service companies they guided were foundering in bankruptcy.

Reacting to a rather blithe and blinkered editorial on tax havens published by the right wing Washington Times, the article ranted, “If you don’t like paying taxes here on the millions you’ve made or that someone made for you, you’re free to take your shekels and move.”

Both Right and Left utterly miss the point.

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

Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau offered this wry description of relations between Canada and the US at the Washington Press Club back in 1969. Had he been a ni-Vanuatu politician addressing the press in Canberra, he might have used an aquatic simile, but the message would have been the same.

In recent years, Vanuatu has been learning to manoeuvre in this demanding and rather tricky role. To further complicate things, there is more than one elephant in this particular bed. Between the EU, the WTO, China and our other regional neighbours, trade and aid negotiators in Vanuatu have had their hands full.

Happily, 3000 years of practice in patient negotiation and peace-making have so far paid off. To mix metaphors, Vanuatu has of late consistently punched well above its weight when it comes to negotiating this sometimes parlous state of affairs.

But our work isn’t finished yet, and if anything, the stakes are higher now than they’ve been in years. Time is not on our side and the elephants are encroaching once again.

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