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Secrecy Driven By Fear Of “Quick Failure”

Government Hong Kong Negotiations Secrecy Driven By Fear Of “Quick Failure”

ARENA (Action, Research and Education Network of Aotearoa) has complained to the Office of the Ombudsmen about the refusal of Trade Negotiations Minister Jim Sutton to release a copy of the negotiators’ report to Cabinet on the July 2001 negotiations on the Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership.

On 29 July 2001, ARENA requested a copy of the report under the Official Information Act.

In his reply to ARENA of 15 August, Jim Sutton implicitly admits that the release of Cabinet papers and negotiating proposals would lead to such public concern that the agreement would almost certainly not proceed. “In essence”, he wrote, “you are asking the two Governments to negotiate the CEP agreement in public. That is a recipe for quick failure.”

ARENA does not believe that Mr Sutton has provided good or conclusive reasons to withhold the report and is seeking an investigation and review by the Ombudsman. It sees this complaint as an important test of how much weight is actually given to the “public interest” in the application of the Official Information Act to international trade and investment agreements.

In his letter Mr Sutton recognises that “there is public interest in the progress of the CEP negotiations with Hong Kong, both from supporters and opponents of the negotiations”.

Yet the position that ARENA and other members of the public find ourselves in is rather like debating a Parliamentary Bill without being able to read it, and relying on its sponsors to tell us what is in it and what its significance is. Mr Sutton is hampering the opportunity for serious independent analysis and informed public debate on the Hong Kong agreement before negotiations have concluded.

ARENA views the official consultations on the Hong Kong agreement as a cosmetic exercise. In the case of the negotiation of the Singapore agreement last year, such briefings gave little detail, and certainly insufficient to allow informed public scrutiny of the developing agreement.

Other jurisdictions have made some moves to release negotiating texts of international trade and investment agreements. Last month the US and Canadian governments made several hundred pages of the negotiating texts of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement publicly available. This establishes a precedent for such agreements, which it is generally acknowledged have far-reaching domestic implications.

It is deeply ironic that Mr Sutton and other free traders in the government often claim that critics of free trade and investment are ill-informed - while they consistently block public scrutiny of these agreements until they are done deals. That is completely unacceptable.


For further comment, please contact Aziz Choudry at arena.nz@clear.net.nz

ARENA’s report on the Hong Kong agreement can be downloaded from www.arena.org.nz

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