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Govt in shambles over WTO services negotiations

Government in shambles over WTO services negotiations

“Six months ago the government received ‘requests’ from other WTO members to commit more services to the free trade rules of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). With ten weeks to go before it has to reply, it still hasn’t released its promised ‘consultation’ document”, reports Professor Jane Kelsey on behalf of Action, Research and Education Network of Aotearoa (ARENA).

The current round of GATS negotiations began in Geneva in early 2000. The initial deadline for tabling ‘requests’ by WTO members of each other was 30 June 2002. The deadline for initial responses is 31 March 2003.

“First, we were told it would be posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) website sometime last week, but when depended on staffing. Then it was delayed until Monday of this week. Then Tuesday. Then it was being rewritten and would appear later that day. Then it was to be up on the website on Wednesday.”

“Now we are told it won’t be released until around Tuesday or Wednesday next week, after the Prime Minister has had time to consider it.”

“We know that the US and EC are likely to have ‘requested’ the removal of all restrictions on foreign direct investment in New Zealand’s services, and binding commitments on environmental, energy and postal services, so the stakes are high.”

The delays come after contradictory statements from Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton and Prime Minister Helen Clark on Morning Report on 6 December last year.

"While Sutton insists that problems with the GATS are in our imagination, Helen Clark has recognised the potentially serious consequences for the Government’s right to implement its policies and regulate in the national interest. The prohibition on reintroducing compulsory local content quotas is the clearest example.

“The UK Government got its act together and put out an, albeit inadequate, document on 10 October and gave people three months to respond. People complained loudly that this simply wasn’t long enough. The EC has had to extend the response date to its consultation because people said the same thing.

“If the NZ version is ever released, how long are they planning to give people to analyse it, consider their response and write their submission,” Professor Kelsey asks.

“The situation has become farcical. The Government should bite the bullet and tell the WTO that it won’t be submitting a response by 31 March. It should then engage in the kind of debate about who has the right to regulate New Zealand’s services – the debate we should have had before the GATS was first signed back in 1994”

To help inform that debate, ARENA has prepared a 140-page guide to understanding the GATS agreement and its implications for such basic services as education, health, environment, retailing and post in New Zealand. Serving Whose Interests? will be released in late January. But will the Government have released their document by then?

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