FORUM FUTURES: REFLECTIONS BY ROWAN CALLICK IN ISLANDS BUSINESS
FORUM: Auckland summit—make or break for Forum
New leaders don’t see it quite so special
The Auckland summit of the Pacific Islands Forum will start a make-or-break year for the 40-year old institution as the unquestioned premier regional body.
Fiji’s ruler for the last five years, military commander Frank Bainimarama, who has so far resisted all attempts to dislodge him or to speed his promised return to democracy after September 2014, has this year made the marginalisation of the Forum a crusade.
This would have been unthinkable in the era dominated by two great leaders of the independence era in the Pacific: Fiji’s Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, who died in 2004 aged 83, and Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, aged 75, whose own family has said that there is no prospect of him returning to the prime ministership of Papua New Guinea following a succession of serious operations in Singapore.
For both leaders, the Forum was an international body which they viewed as their own creation. Its traditions and island-style validated their approach to leadership. But the newer generation of leaders do not see it as quite so special.
Can the organisation over-ride the determined obstacle of suspended Fiji, whose awkwardness is underlined because the Forum’s headquarters and the biggest single pan-Pacific institution, the University of the South Pacific, remain in Suva, and because Fiji itself is still the transport and distribution hub of the islands?
It is doubly fortunate that this year’s summit, from September 6-9, will be held in Auckland, the city that contains the world’s highest Polynesian population.
First and most obviously, of course, because the Rugby World Cup kicks off on September 9 in Auckland with a game between the hosts, the All Blacks, and Tonga—the latter likely inspired by the Samoans’ stunning triumph against the Wallabies last month.
Second, because New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key will take on the chairmanship of the Forum for a year, until the next summit—which will probably be held at Rarotonga, capital of the Cook Islands.
Key faces an election on November. But he is already the overwhelming favourite to win. Even if he achieves an unlikely outright majority with his own National Party, he has said he will retain his coalition with the Maori Party.
He has proven popular, astute, with a good rapport with Maori and islanders at home and especially strong internationally.
Restoring waning influence: If anyone can steer the Forum through a most difficult year ahead, it is Key—who will have to wear the responsibility of ushering towards Pacific-style consensus, an Australian government whose foreign policy is riven by rivalries with Prime Minister Julia Gillard utterly distracted by domestic woes and her foreign minister Kevin Rudd running his own diplomatic race and taking scant interest in the Pacific since being ousted by Gillard as prime minister in June last year.
Gillard failed to attend the Forum summit in Port Vila, Vanuatu, last August because of the imminence of the Australian election. Failure to attend this year’s would considerably weaken Australia’s influence and considerably boost Bainimarama’s.
But she has up her sleeve an especially attractive tool for restoring Australia’s waning influence: a bipartisan political deal to double aid to A$8 billion a year or more from 2015, with a big slice of it earmarked for the Pacific.
She may face questions from Pacific leaders about her plans to process offshore asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat.
She wants to do a deal with PNG for access again to Manus island for such a centre as in the John Howard era, but has so far failed to provide sufficient details to satisfy Port Moresby. And Solomon Islands has offered the disused airforce strip on unpopulated Stirling Island in the west, but has been knocked back by Canberra.
Gillard may also face questioning of the failure to-date of the pilot scheme to bring Pacific temporary workers to Australia, compared with New Zealand’s scheme, which is bringing more than 10,000 workers a year to work largely in orchards and on other agricultural jobs.
The Auckland summit will welcome a range of new leaders to the Pacific stage. They include Danny Philip from Solomon Islands; Sato Kilman from Vanuatu; and Lord Tu’ivakano from Tonga. Papua New Guinea will probably be represented—though the leadership situation there has become highly fluid since it became clear that Grand Chief Somare would be standing down—by Sam Abal. Philip and Abal have both been their countries’ foreign ministers, so will have a level of comfort and confidence in Auckland.
Biggest issue: What to do about army-ruled Fiji is clearly the biggest issue with which the Forum has to grapple—even though none of the leaders or officials are likely to say so publicly in Auckland.
Bainimarama has successfully hosted a Melanesian Spearhead Group summit whose clear goal was to trumpet his successful defiance of the Forum’s suspension of Fiji, with the other Melanesian leaders providing the desired messages to back him up.
It will be intriguing to see whether they start to retract their bold support of him made while they were in Suva as his guests.
Bainimarama underlined his intention to stir up Canberra, by inviting to the MSG summit, a senior team from Luxembourg, the tiny European country that is seeking to trump Australia’s attempt to gain a seat at the UN Security Council in 2013.
The discussions last time around in Port Vila that will almost certainly return to the agenda in Auckland include:
• Climate change, despite the disappointment at failing to persuade the UN Security Council to declare this a security issue when it met in July, when the council was addressed by Nauru’s President Marcus Stephen and by Australia’s Pacific Secretary Richard Marles. This debate will focus on adaptation and mitigation.
• The Pacific Plan, with a special focus on coordinating aid flows so as to avoid duplication and competition between agencies. Under the plan, “peer reviews” have begun of the effectiveness of national aid programmes. But China has been reluctant to become involved, viewing its aid as being markedly different from that of Western countries.
• The implementation of the long debated Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations Plus (PACER Plus)—the “plus” bringing Australia and New Zealand into the deal, along with the islands countries that have still only taken limited steps towards a free trade zone of their own— would mark an especially significant move for the Forum. But at their last meeting in Tonga in May, the region’s trade ministers appeared to anticipate a prolonged period of negotiations, agreeing that the next PACER Plus officials meeting would be held before the end of 2011, preferably in November, followed by another meeting in early 2012. Ministers agreed the next meeting should focus on customs procedures, rules of origin and regional labour mobility.
• Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) is likely to be invited to continue its work helping to bring security and development opportunities to the recently split-apart nation.
• New Caledonia, where voters may choose between 2014-2019 whether to become independent from France, is pressing for full Forum membership in advance of the referendum. Melanesians from the Indonesian province of Papua will also again stake their claim to membership, but are unlikely to earn a full debate. The PNG autonomous region of Bougainville may follow, due to be given a referendum on independence by 2015.
• Dealing with cross-border diseases will again be discussed.
• So will the old concept of the “digital divide,” although mobile phone usage—and alongside it, internet use—are soaring. Bob Zoellick, the World Bank managing director, recently claimed that in Vanuatu and Tonga, for instance, mobile phone access has recently soared from 6 percent to 60 percent of the population.
• Building a better future for young islanders is another topic likely to be raised, following a June meeting of Wansolwara, a youth conference in Auckland with young people representing 14 Forum countries. This meeting challenged Pacific leaders to create parliamentary youth programmes and parliamentary seats for youth representatives.