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Selling out our neighbours and serving the empire

Selling out our neighbours and serving the empire

A commentary on Winston Peters Foreign Policy “Five Year Plan’

By Omar Hamed

There was something quite insidious in the way Winston Peters worded his comments about the direction of New Zealand foreign policy for the next five years. His speech on Tuesday seemed to hint at unspeakable things and those who listened to it must have left the room feeling as though only half the puzzle pieces had been given to them. The rhetoric that Peters delivered veiled the truth behind our government’s foreign policy, a policy that is set to cast a heavy shadow across the Pacific.

One of the trends Peters identified, as part of our foreign policy is globalisation, which he said, “Has had a demonstrable effect on our economy, our standard of living and the make up of our society.” Yes, we have become a much more diverse and multi-cultural nation and the better for it. On the other hand the demonstrable effect on our standard of living and the state of the economy is not something the Minister of Foreign Affairs should be particularly proud off.

Globalisation should be understood in the framework that it depresses the most vulnerable sectors of our society while strengthening trans-national corporations that externalise their social and environmental costs onto the communities they plunder. As the age of the corporation ascended from1980-2001 real wages dropped in New Zealand by 6.5% yet in the same two decades corporate profits went from 34% of GDP to 46%. Wages as a share of GDP fell from 57% to 42%. However the low paid workers of Aotearoa, overwhelmingly migrants, women and young people, from the care givers in rest homes to the staff at the multinational fast food franchises have not seen the last of what Peters calls the, “well-documented downside to globalisation.” With the government refusing to raise the minimum wage to a living wage of twelve dollars an hour it condemns those who make up the working poor to subsistence, not knowing whether or not they can make ends meet and put food for their children on the table.

The twenty-first century will surely be the century of globalisation for the Pacific island countries and their “deeply concerning poverty” needs to be addressed. Peters, puts his faith in the New Zealand government instituted ‘Pacific Plan’ to take care of “economic growth and social development”. The plan although widely promoted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade as a blueprint for development was condemned in late 2005 by a network of South Pacific NGOs “as a flawed document that ignores the real needs of island peoples…There has been a glaring lack of attention given to critical areas such as water and sanitation, literacy and access to employment and other income generating opportunities.”

In a statement Orwell himself would be proud of Peters labelled the plan part of a move towards “regional cooperation in the Pacific.” It would be much fairer to label our role as regional extortion; Oxfam New Zealand described the plan as, “locking Pacific island nations into unfair, inappropriate and damaging trade deals.” On top of this the Pacific region has been at the receiving end of our governments efforts to liberalise their trade through a raft of free trade agreements and to the particularly damaging accession of a number of islands to the World Trade Organisation including Tonga which joined on what Oxfam called, “the worst terms ever offered to any country.” Jane Kelsey reported in 2004 the comments of one New Zealand consultant at the trade negotiations for one of these agreements, “The whole experience was stressful and demoralizing for me, let alone for the Pacific Islands negotiators. There were times that I felt ashamed to be a New Zealander”.

All this leads one to wonder, is this part of the, “progress being made in addressing the challenges facing Pacific island countries”? Or is it time New Zealand took a good hard look at our foreign policy and fronted up to the fact that we are part of the problem in the Pacific?

There has been little research done into the social costs of the trade agreements like the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) that form cornerstones of our foreign policy in the Pacific, but what has been done supports the conclusion that it will do more harm than good in an area that is one of only two regions (the other is sub-Saharan Africa) that lack furthest behind in their achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. As a result of our policy of trade liberalisation, Fiji’s vulnerable garment sector faces “potentially huge social costs and political consequences of large scale unemployment among the predominantly Indo-Fijian women workers at a time when men are losing jobs on sugar plantations and their families squat in urban slums.”

Possibly the best paragraph in Peters speech was when he said, “It is in our interests, and theirs, to see that our Pacific neighbours are well educated, healthy, able to earn a living, and can embrace the values underpinning a well-governed democratic society.”

Why though do we act so often as if the above was of no concern to us?


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