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Government NGO Strategy on APEC 1999 Exposed

GATT Watchdog
PO Box 1905
Aotearoa (New Zealand)

- Aziz Choudry, GATT Watchdog & Aotearoa/New Zealand APEC Monitoring Group (5 May 1999)

Official documents show Government strategies to bring about "constructive participation by NGOs in the APEC process" to be a cynical cosmetic exercise.

While consulting with businesses about their priorities for APEC 1999, it does not propose to consult with NGOs or Maori about issues of substance - but wants to bring them onside in promoting the supposed benefits of APEC's free trade, free market agenda. The more people and organisations that it can get to participate in this year's APEC meetings, the more support Wellington will claim for APEC's free-market goals.

APEC promotes a regional version of the New Zealand Experiment. APEC's supporters say that what is good for business is good for the peoples of the region, that inequality is inevitable and desirable, and that there are no alternatives to the free market.

To engage with APEC and seek to change it from within is to misunderstand the nature of the forum. As Joan Spero, US Undersecretary for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs told US Congress in 1995 "APEC is not for governments; it is for business. Through APEC, we aim to get governments out of the way, opening the way for business to do business."

To become involved in the APEC circus is to help legitimise and stabilise a forum which lacks political legitimacy - and to accept its redefinition of basic rights on APEC's terms. As a community of "economies" APEC conveniently excludes from consideration the social, political, environmental, and cultural effects of its narrow economic programme.

Robert Reid argues that trying to get a seat at the APEC table for "civil society" "will be as successful as urging a tiger to become a vegetarian. For those organising at the grassroots...exploitation, discrimination and repression in the workplace are the natural consequences of globalisation, not an unfortunate byproduct that can be fixed by a social contract". APEC is a creature of the market. It has always been heavily influenced and its work programme directed by private sector free marketeers.

Previous APEC host governments have tried to stave off criticism of the secretive, anti-democratic nature in which APEC operates, sometimes throwing the mildest critics a bone - a marginal role on the fringes of official events. Some unions and environmental NGOs sympathetic to APEC's goals have been selected to take part in low-level APEC working groups.

The government has hired an NGO Liaison Officer for the APEC Taskforce whose job is to co-opt NGOs into the APEC programme. It believes that:

"ensuring constructive participation by NGOs in the APEC process will be a critical part of communicating the what, why and how of APEC to the New Zealand community. It would also serve to demonstrate to the international community New Zealand's ability to accommodate debate and dissent among a variety of NGOs".

This will require "engaging effectively" with "responsive" groups and "helping to meet, as far as possible, their own objectives of being seen to influence outcomes...and "involves building broad public support for APEC and actively managing the risk of disruption."

Cabinet papers on the APEC NGO strategy state: "It will be important to avoid getting bogged down in long, resource-intensive consultations." The government has absolutely no intention of engaging seriously with informed analysis or debate about the package of reforms which APEC promotes.

After all: "Advertising and public relations activities will be required to get the APEC 1999 brand in the market place as quickly as possible, but will not focus on the complex substance of the APEC process such as trade liberalisation or facilitation."

Such moves must be seen in the context of the crisis of credibility engulfing APEC and other forums promoting unrestricted trade and investment. And it's election year.

The economic model underpinning APEC is being challenged. Many governments have become more ambivalent about further trade and investment liberalisation. For years, people's movements, many NGOs, unions and community groups throughout the region have condemned APEC as yet another forum which puts economic growth and a "free" market over the rights of the peoples of the region and the environment. APEC's solution to this crisis? Better public relations strategies.

At the November 1997 Vancouver APEC Summit, APEC ministers endorsed a public relations campaign because "support among the people of the region for continuing trade and investment liberalisation is essential."

Last May, the Singapore-based APEC Secretariat called for proposals from communications consultants to help raise "understanding and support for liberalisation". And in Kuala Lumpur last November, APEC ministers "tasked officials to develop effective communication strategies to build community understanding for liberalisation".

So government overtures to NGOs to get involved with APEC are driven by desperation. Other APEC host governments, notably the Philippines and Canada, have tried to mute debate and dissent about APEC by funding parallel People's Summits in Manila, Vancouver and Kuala Lumpur. Official documents show that the Canadian government saw such moves as useful to "vent steam" and display an image of democratic debate to domestic and international audiences.

The quest is on to find new ways to sell the message that APEC is good for us all.

Through APEC, the government wants to showcase "the New Zealand Experiment" to internationally. This April, Jenny Shipley told the Christchurch APEC Ministerial Meeting to follow New Zealand-style reforms, urging other APEC countries to go further and faster down the free trade and investment track.

While community organisations are being expected to provide relief for the many casualties of free market policies, the government apparently views the same groups as potential vehicles for selling APEC to the public. As it retreats from the provision of social services, as health and education become market-driven and the privatisation of the country's infrastructure continues, it wants the same NGOs to operate as the social safety net which is rapidly being ripped asunder, and to compete with each other for funding and political power.

There are alternatives to APEC's global freemarket agenda. But they are emerging from the grassroots peoples' struggles. Organisations like GATT Watchdog, the Aotearoa/New Zealand APEC Monitoring Group and Corso have long been promoting open, informed, genuine debate about the market model and globalisation.

But as we work to build just alternatives in our communities, perhaps we need to ask some hard questions about the real motives of the government in promoting "constructive engagement" and "dialogue" with NGOs about issues like APEC.

Return to: "Resist APEC".

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