‘The World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference in Buenos Aires has concluded without a formal statement. This reflects the deep divide between poorer countries who have demanded that WTO members deliver on their promises to address outstanding development issues’, Auckland University law professor Jane Kelsey reports from the meeting.

‘Richer countries, including New Zealand, sought to leave those promises behind and move on with negotiations on rules of commercial interest to them’.

Two side-statements have been issued today by those countries, one on electronic commerce and another that proposes ‘disciplines’ on how governments can regulate their services.

‘Sadly, New Zealand is a signatory to both statements’, according to Professor Kelsey.

A Joint Statement on Electronic Commerce was supported by only 70 of the 164 WTO Members. The majority of developing countries held firm against massive pressure, led by Japan, Australia and Singapore, to launch negotiations on electronic commerce in the WTO. Their proposals were designed for, and largely by, the Big Tech companies.

They plan to hold ‘exploratory work towards future WTO negotiations’, even though there is no mandate from the Ministerial Conference to take e-commerce any further than the ‘discussions’ that are currently authorised.

This repeats the tactics used in the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA), where a self-selected group of countries took it upon themselves to rewrite the trade in services rules of the WTO in ways that intrude deeply on nations’ right to regulate and without any development dimension. Those negotiations have been suspended for over a year.

The collapse of TiSA is partly behind the second statement on Domestic Regulation Disciplines. New Zealand has been a cheerleader of these negotiations under successive government.

It was among a small group of countries that took the most hard-line position that government’s licensing requirements and procedures and technical standards should be subject to a ‘necessity test’. Decided, that means regulations that are least burdensome for business – a repeat of the light-handed, risk-tolerant approach that official inquiries show have brought us Pike River, leaky buildings, deaths in the forestry sector. The only specified goal is the ‘quality’ of the service.

‘It is shameful that the new Labour-led government has been willing to play a leading role in signing up to these statements at the WTO’.