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Kelsey on GATS: "Spread the word!"

For immediate release: 30 January 2003

Kelsey on GATS: "Spread the word!"

More than 100 people crowded into Wellington City Council chambers yesterday evening to attend the launch of Professor Jane Kelsey's "Serving whose interests?", a shocking expose on what the secretly negotiated GATS (the General Agreement on Trade in Services) means for New Zealanders.

This supportive and eclectic group included educators, trade unionists, tangata whenua, elected members of local government, journalists, students and ordinary citizens. To get that many people to a launch of a report about an international trade treaty, especially when the launch date and venue had been set for less than a week, shows how quickly the level of concern about the GATS is growing.

Professor Kelsey acknowledged that GATS was "often viewed as a deadly arcane subject matter… complicated, and still not fully understood." Kelsey says as early as 1993, she and others became aware of secret negotiations by which the National government was making commitments that guaranteed overseas companies access to key New Zealand services. Kelsey says that the government’s persistent refusal to provide information and denials that there were any negative effects for New Zealand intensified their concern.

"We'd ask questions and the answers we got back almost made us feel as though we were on different planets," Kelsey said.

"The new round of GATS negotiations began in 2000. It was initially designed to encourage each country to tighten the rules in favour of trans-national corporate involvement, and secondly to guarantee TNC's access to a larger number of our nation’s key services.

Kelsey says some demands made to the government are known, others are not, but what the government plans to do remains secret.

"Before Christmas the Labour government promised to produce a working consultation document," Kelsey says, "but with a March 31 deadline to report to the World Trade Organisation, it's still not appeared. It’s becoming clear the government has no intention of genuinely consulting with anyone. The worst part is that once those services have been brought under GATS rules, it’s extremely difficult to get them back. Ever.

"What needs to be done right now is to spread the word," Kelsey said. "Sponsor a copy of this report to your favourite MP - or your least favourite MP. Or your local mayor, or library, or local newspaper, or whoever you feel will help spread the word.

"The first target is to get the government to abandon the March 31st deadline. Then we need to seriously debate whether our health service, education, transport, broadcasting, professional and other services should be controlled by foreign transnationals or New Zealand citizens, and what principles should govern them – the free trade rules of the GATS or the Tiriti and the social, economic and cultural interests of New Zealand," Jane Kelsey said.

Later, Kelsey said the general response of people becoming aware of the threat posed by GATS was very encouraging. "It reminds me of the same enthusiasm we felt when we put the skids under MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment)."

Speakers at the launch included Moana Jackson (Ngati Kahungungu and Ngati Porou) who said the government had breached the Treaty of Waitangi in a number of ways, not the least of which were such morally repugnant notions as commodification of natural resources such as water and the assumption that Maori would not want to participate or be involved in the consultation.

Council of Trade Unions Secretary Paul Goulter told the group that "we need to be reminded that GATS can reach into areas we can't even comprehend. That is why this guide is so valuable."

He said the NZCTU was launching its own campaign together with the Australian Council of Trade Unions to have the March 31st deadline pushed back. "We need to recapture the process to protect the interests of New Zealand workers and our basic democracy."

Representing 32,000 nurses, Eileen Brown told the group that a complex and difficult subject has been made simple.

"We don't know yet what impact GATS will have on the health service," Brown said. "Helen Clark has told us that health will not be included, but we have no confidence in this. Especially health care for the elderly. If you are worried about who is going to care for you when you are old, this book will not make you feel any better."

Dr Bill Rosenberg, President of the Association of University Staff said that "education is about social justice. GATS divorces education from social justice.

"Education is not a commodity," Rosenberg said. "It can't be bought and sold. The Association of University Staff have been fighting the GATS for ten years, as other education unions are now doing. Once it covers education, it makes it really hard for governments to turn back from the market model, as this government is trying to do."

Wellington City Councillor Stephanie Cook told the gathering about the fight to stop foreign owned contractors taking over the council's works department. "If we show preference to our local Wellington workers, the company will complain to its head office in Malaysia, who in turn will get its government to complain to the New Zealand government that we are breaking the agreement, and the hard word will come from the government to the city council. This is the way it works."

The launch and function was hosted by Wellington City Councillor Ray Ahipene-Mercer. "Serving whose interests?" is published by ARENA (Action, Research and Education Network of Aotearoa). Copies of the 140 page guide are available from PO Box 2450, Christchurch for $20 plus $3 postage, or from the ARENA website at www.arena.org.nz


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