PACER Plus: debate about Tonga’s signing could mean even more PACER-Minus

April 9, 2018: On Sunday April 8, the Kingdom of Tonga’s Prime Minister, 'Akilisi Pohiva, threw more doubt over Tonga’s signature on the PACER-Plus free trade agreement when answering a direct question in a long media conference about the powers of the Cabinet.

The online news outlet Matangi Tonga asked the Prime Minister what happened to the PACER-Plus agreement, claiming his signature had been discredited by the Privy Council, and that the Attorney General had told him that he had no right to sign it for Tonga last year. The Prime Minister replied that consultation was still going on.

The Prime Minister related that when he was driving to the meeting to sign the PACER-Plus agreement with other Pacific leaders in Nuku'alofa, he had received a text on his cell phone from "a clerk" telling him not to sign the agreement.

He said he was confused because he was already on his way to the ceremony, so in the end he decided he would sign it and then face being told-off by the Privy Council.

The Prime Minister had been reported by The Diplomat on March 30, 2018, to declare that PACER-Plus was no longer appropriate for Tonga and it was no longer a signatory. The agreement was signed by eight Pacific Island countries and Australia and New Zealand at a ceremony in Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa, on June 14, 2017, and Vanuatu signed later, making nine. Without Tonga, it would be eight, out of a total of 14.

On April 5, the Auckland-based Kaniva Tonga reported emphatically that the Prime Minister had never made such a statement, and that Tonga was fully supportive of PACER-Plus.

Australia began the process of ratifying PACER-Plus by tabling the treaty in parliament last year and the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties has conducted hearings and is due to report on June 19. Tonga’s possible withdrawal from the ratification process further undermines the credibility of the agreement.

Fiji and Papua New Guinea, which form over 80% of the combined GDP of the Pacific island nations, never signed PACER-Plus, noting it would damage their developing industries by making Australian and New Zealand imports tariff-free. The northern island states in free association with the United States of America – the Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau - had said they would sign, but never did. It was already PACER-Minus.

In economic terms, if Tonga is withdrawn, the island signatories of PACER-Plus would account for just 11.4 per cent of the island economies.

This is not credible as a regional agreement.

Australia and New Zealand are persisting with PACER-Plus regardless, because of their ideological commitment to free trade and fear of Chinese influence in the region. Some commentators are noting that this persistence may have the opposite effect, turning more governments towards China.

Island country signatories today: Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Tonga (now being questioned).

Island country non-signatories: Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Palau.