It's far too early to even guess at the medium to long-term influence of last week's Engaging with Fiji meeting at Natadola, but with very contrary statements coming from participants and non-participants, some assessment it necessary.
The three statements about Fiji in the Natadola Communique (see below) which had the unanimous endorsement of participants were certainly supportive of the Bainimarama Government's Strategic Framework for Change, elections in 2014, and continuing dialogue with Fiji, but as John Key pointed out, this does not necessarily mean that the Pacific leaders will call for Fiji's readmittance at the Forum when it meets in Vila next month.
It could, however, mean that Australia and New Zealand will be urged to relax their sanctions and re-engage with Fiji in a more meaningful manner. They will have certainly lost some traction after Natadola, and they could lose more if they do not heed the Pacific undercurrents. So, some fine-tuning of their position may be expected, if only they can find ways to make changes without losing face. An imminent major policy change seems unlikely.
Those seeking to detract from the importance of Natadola went to some lengths to downplay attendance. Samoan PM Tailaepa said it was an "awkward invitation" which Pacific cultural protocol made it difficult to refuse. This sort of explained the attendance of other leaders -- but not his own refusal. Another commentator said Sir Michael Somare only went for the golf and Dr Derek Sikua for the opening of the Solomon Islands Chancery in Suva. And Australian broadcaster Philippa Macdonald said there were only three prime ministers among the 15 countries represented. She did not say that this was an unexpected large attendance considering the strenuous Australian efforts to discourage any attendance at all. Australia wanted the meeting boycotted.
In fact, few Pacific countries were absent. Of the larger Melanesian nations, only Vanuatu's PM (who, without due consultation, had cancelled the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting that was replaced by the Natadola meeting) was missing, and even he sent his Foreign Minister. From the smaller nations originally invited to the MSG Plus meeting, Tuvalu's PM was present as was the Kiribati President. Representation from the northern Pacific did not include presidents or heads of government because of a prior sub-regional commitment, but Marshall Islands, FSM and Nauru were represented, as were Timor Leste, Tonga, Niue, and the small territories of Tokelau and French Wallis and Futuna. Cook Islands apologized saying it was preoccupied with its budget. Only Australia, New Zealand and Samoa were absent without explanation or apology. It is difficult to palm off a meeting where 15 countries were officially represented as a gathering of nobodies, nincompoops or toadies.
Australia's and New Zealand's absence did not unduly concern Sir Michael who said they did not really think of themselves as Pacific nations.
Recently, Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith said that it is "difficult to have a dialogue with a military dictator who doesn't want to engage." One consequence of Natadola is that Pacific Island leaders will now be even more aware that this is demonstrably untrue. In fact, the boot is on the other foot. It is Smith who does not want to talk with Bainimarama. He has been twice invited to Fiji in recent months. The first time he and Murray McCully fouled up the invitation, and he turned down the invitation to come to Natadola. This was a deliberate snub to Bainimarama, which many Pacific Islanders would see as discourteous and not the Pacific Way. The snub also left the field totally open to Bainimarama, as his predecessor, Alex Downer, who thinks Smith should have gone to Natadola, rightly pointed out.
Australia's absence at Natadola and the probable absence of Julia Gillard and even Stephen Smith at the Pacific Forum meeting in Vila in two week's time, has led another commentator to say, "We are losing ground to a dictator ... That sends a regrettably clear message to the region as to our government's priorities."
This messsage would have been read loud and clear at Natadola where leaders heard presentations urging a break from aid dependency, widening intra-regional trade and co-operation, and trade with Asia.
Addressing the meeting , UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) representative in the Pacific, Samoan Iosefa Maiava, told leaders there were many opportunities in the Asia-Pacific region, which the Pacific Islands can tap into, and that the Pacific needs to grow partnerships with Asian countries. He said import percentage ratings show the Pacific was now importing more from the Asian region than that combined together of both Australia and New Zealand."
So with Australia otherwise preoccupied, what has Fiji gained?
Fiji broadcaster Stanley Simpson thinks Natadola shows "recognition for Fiji's continuous engagement in the region and full participation in regional development, institutions and aspirations." This view gains support from Kiribati President Anote Tong , "Fiji will always be an important partner for all Pacific Island states;" from Solomon Islands PM Dr Derek Sikua who said his main aim in attending was to "show support for Fiji," and in Sir Michael's comment that "Fiji should determine its own destiny ...Fiji is out of the Forum but as Pacific nations we need to look out for each other, that is why I'm here."
Somare said Bainimarama "is the leader of his people. It is his responsibility. If we have to report back to the main Forum, we will tell them 'this is what's going on in Fiji' ... He has given a timeline for democratic elections. He's the leader and has been recognised now for almost four years and we have to allow him to determine the future of his own people ... this is what Fiji wants, we have to allow them to do what they want."
Three paragraphs of the Communique clearly show an understanding and, I think, an acceptance of the Fiji situation that is not shared with Australia and New Zealand. They read:
5. Agreed that Fiji’s Strategic Framework for Change (SFC) is a credible home-grown process for positioning Fiji as a modern nation and to hold true democratic elections;
6. Agreed that important lessons could be learnt and shared within the region, from Fiji’s experience and Fiji’s implementation of the Strategic Framework for Change;
7. Recognised the need for Fiji’s continuous engagement with the region and its full participation in regional development, initiatives and aspirations.
Discussion at Natadola was not limited to the Fiji situation. Hold your breath -- Joint ventures in fish processing, coral and marine resource protection, bilateral arrangements on mining exploration, education, investment opportunities, economic opportunities in Asia, climate change and sea level rise, the high cost of consultancy fees, the integration of tourism and knowledge-based economies, a possible regional police academy, modernising laws, co-operation in trade, regional tourism, education, shipping, aviation, labour mobility, private sector co-operation, the efforts of he Pacific Conference of Churches on a sustainable Pacific development model, and the possibility of Fiji acting as a regional hub for a range of activities -- were also discussed. A mini trade fair was also held during the meeting.
The two messages I took from the meeting were, first, the willingness to foster Pacific Islands regional co-operation and solidarity, and the special attention given to the concerns of the Small Islands Development States; and, secondly, the obvious support for the Fiji predicament.
In many ways, of course, Pacific leaders are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Their solidarity will come under pressure when they return home and as Australian and New Zealand pressures resume. But they have sounded a warning. They are not happy with the way Fiji is being treated. They detect a whiff of bullying and neo-colonialism. They clearly want Australia and New Zealand to recognize Fiji's Roadmap and accept that elections will not be held until 2014. Not all are heavily aid dependent. They are receptive to suggestions of a closer Asian connection. And, although they may not move for Fiji's readmittance to the Forum in Vila next month, they will be calling for more dialogue and less rigid exclusion of Fiji from regional fora.
How permanent their position is cannot be known. Somare and Sikua (and Vanuatu's Natapei) may no longer be prime ministers in a few month's time and their successors may march to a different tune. But there will be another meeting at Natadola in a year's time. Fiji's geographic position and regional importance will be unchanged . And -- unless they play it right over the next few months -- Australia and New Zealand may well have drifted just that much further away.
Indeed, there's evidence, even more telling than our present sub-antarctic weather, that New Zealand may have already drifted away. There's been little to no mention of the Natadola meeting and its important communique by our media, that is usually so quick to pick up even the smallest morsels of negative news from Fiji. But I may been reading too much into this omission: Michael Field could just have taken the weekend off.
Postscript Monday. I spoke too quickly. He was pounding away on his personal blog. For readers who do not already know Michael Field's ideas on what constitutes informed, reasoned and balanced comment, and a journalist's code of professional ethics, access this link to his account of Natadola. His "sanatised" version could well be published by the mainstream media today.