At the weekend, Trade Ministers from thirteen Pacific countries - along with Australia and New Zealand - formally began the process of negotiations for PACER Plus. The Brisbane meeting began the rather controversial regional framework that includes the prospect of a Pacific Islands Forum-wide free trade agreement.
Fiji was not invited, its military-led government says that makes the whole thing irrelevant and illegal.
However, that was not the view that was being expressed by Australia's Trade Minister, Simon Crean, at the news conference on Saturday at the close of the Trade Ministers meeting.
SIMON CREAN: So I'm very happy with the outcome of the meeting - the office of the Chief Trade Advisor to be established by the end of the year, the first of the technical discussions to commence in the first quarter of the year; and Ministers will get together again within the first half of next year to review the progress.
SEAN DORNEY: Simon Crean was at pains to point out that PACER Plus was not just a free trade agreement, that, in Australia's view, it was all about building the capacity of Pacific islands to compete economically.
CREAN: How do we improve the airlinks? How do we improve telecommunications? But in the case of agricultural produce how do we also build their capacity to understand what our quarantine requirements are so that they can meet them and their products not knocked back on the wharf. There's also the ability to look creatively at the movement of people within the region because Papua New Guinea's gas pipeline is going to require 12,000 people to build it. New Guinea itself knows they can only expect to provide, they say, round aobut three-and-a-half thousand of those. Where are the others going to come from? So there's a real opportunity, if we're creative about it, to not just say the people are available but develop the skills.
DORNEY: Samoa's Deputy Prime Minister, Misa Telefoni, said there were already examples of economic integration that could be built upon in the region.
MISA TELEFONI: A lot of people don't realise that all the Toyota cars made in Melbourne by the Toyota factory, the electrical harnessing comes from Samoa. And they employ close to 2,000 people. There's a lot of trade inter-linking in terms of that. And, of course, I think the great thing about PACER Plus is that the emphasis is on the Plus. The Plus means that it's more than just a trade agreement. It's looking at the overall development of the country. Now, for instance, in our case we have about 600 apple pickers in New Zealand. That's been very, very positive for our economy and they're not exploited, they get the minimum wage. So we have a lot of opportunities to trade with each other. I think the main thing we've got to look at for those small island states that still rely on import duties for revenue is to try to find another way of earning government revenue so that they don't rely on import duties.
DORNEY: The Pacific Islands Forum Trade Ministers endorsed the establishment of the office of a Chief Trade Advisor to help the island countries in their negotiations with Australia and New Zealand even though much of the funding for that office, which will eventually be based in Vanuatu, will come from Australia and New Zealand.
CREAN: The interview process has been concluded, a recommendation's made, the offer now needs to be made to that person but the Office of the Chief Trade Advisor is part of that capacity building exercise. Also what we agreed on was the framework of the work program going forward - the commitment to begin the process, the long process of negotiation. The process going forward will not be easy and it won't be quick but there is a confidence and a preparedness to engage in this important task.
DORNEY: That confidence is, of course, not shared by the administration in Fiji which has been frozen out of participating.
CREAN: The participation of Fiji in this is totally in Fiji's hands. If they're prepared to accept the requirement that all Pacific islands leaders made of them to chart the path to the return to democracy then they can come back in. Fiji by inaction on that front has excluded themselves. We understand the importance of keeping Fiji informed about progress in these negotiations and we also discussed at this meeting today how that will be discharged. But the quesiton of Fiji's involvement which would would welcome is entirely in their hands.
DORNEY: Samoa's Deputy Prime Minister is all for PACER Plus.
TELEFONI: There have been people attacking PLACER Plus and some even going so far as to say that New Zealand and Australia are trying to exploit us in the islands. Well, you know, I've always found that to be a little bit patronising because, you know, I don't think we can be bullied. We're looking at this in a very realistic way and I think there are benefits, very real benefits for us -RADIO AUSTRALIA