Islands in the Scrum by JF

The Pacific Islands ForumIslands in the scrum
Sep 13th 2011, 10:34 by J.F. | CANBERRA

THE Pacific Islands Forum gathering in Auckland on September 6th-8th was most notable not so much for what it did, but for what it did not do. Fiji's suspension was not lifted, lacklustre Forum Secretary General Neroni Slade was not replaced, and delegates did not agree to back the placing of French Polynesia on the United Nations' list of non-decolonised territories. All three decisions reflect the dominance of Australia and New Zealand over the regional summit, which also brings together the leaders of fourteen Pacific Island states. Indeed, the event would have been a complete damp squib were it not for the accompanying razzmatazz of the rugby world cup, which also got going in New Zealand. On concluding their fruitless deliberations, the majority of Pacific Island leaders merrily dispersed to catch a game or two.

The South Pacific Forum, as it was initially called, first met in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1971. It quickly distinguished itself by its opposition to French nuclear testing in Polynesia. In the 1980s, as Kanak pro-independence militants clashed with French authorities in New Caledonia, the Forum backed the re-inscription of that territory on the UN's influential listing of "non de-colonised territories". Then, the island states had several influential regional leaders, including Papua New Guinea's Sir Michael Somare and Fiji's Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara who famously coined the expression "the Pacific Way" to describe his region's preferred consensual style of decision-making.

Thirty years later, much has changed. Across the Pacific Islands, the post-colonial honeymoon is long over. The first generation of independence leaders has been replaced by politicians of lesser standing, more accustomed to haggling over the spoils of office than offering any coherent regional vision. Ratu Mara died in 2004, but lived long enough to watch his country experience debilitating coups in 1987, and again in 2000. Oddly, some of his descendants initially backed a third coup in December 2006, though most have since fallen out with Fiji's latest coup leader, Frank Bainimarama. When Mr Bainimarama, who doubles as military commander, reneged on a promise to hold elections in 2009, Fiji was suspended from the forum. Since then, Mr Bainimarama has abrogated the constitution, dismantled the municipal councils, censored the press and clamped down on his opponents, including most recently the Methodist Church and the trades unions.

Other island leaders have, like Ratu Mara, seen their legacy besmirched by the antics of their children. Sir Michael Somare, easily PNG's longest-serving prime minister, underwent three heart operations in Singapore earlier this year. His son, Arthur Somare-a business-oriented politician eager to retain his lucrative ministerial links with companies responsible for a huge liquid natural gas project in the southern Highlands-at first declared his father unfit to resume office, hoping thereby to inherit the top job himself. Then in August, most MPs deserted the ailing Sir Michael and instead backed the former finance minister, Peter O'Neill, as the new prime minister. Somare Junior cried foul, and brought his incapacitated father back from Singapore to contest the takeover. Despite Sir Michael making a fleeting appearance on the floor of parliament in a wheelchair on September 6th, the Speaker ruled his seat vacant, hoping thereby to sway the courts to endorse Mr O'Neill's new government. An MP with no seat cannot also claim to be Prime Minister.

The position of Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific has also changed significantly since the 1970s. In the early years of that decade, radical prime ministers in both countries increased aid to the Pacific, and at times joined the newly independent states in challenging their former colonial masters. When French secret services sunk the Greenpeace vessel the
Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985, New Zealand barred nuclear-armed ships from entering its territorial waters and pressed for a nuclear-free zone across the Pacific. In response, the United States suspended its treaty obligations to New Zealand. Those controversies are now long gone, partly due to the ending of French nuclear testing.

Nowadays, the Australasian nations are the status quo powers in the region, and New Zealand is again closely allied with America. Unlike the poorly attended annual summit in Vanuatu last year, this year's gathering was graced not only by the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers, but also UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and a large delegation from the United States, as well as leaders from nearly all the Pacific states. The forum may be in trouble: its headquarters are located in Suva, the capital of Mr Bainimarama's troubled Fiji; its secretary general has performed poorly but is not easily replaceable; and its regional trade talks have stalled, again because of the troubles in Fiji. None of these difficulties is easily soluble, at least while Mr Bainimarama remains in charge. Little wonder that island leaders retreated from the curve balls of regional politics to the colourful contests between Pacific rugby squads.

THE NATION HAS SEVERAL STORIES ON THE FORUM. Click here, and also visit this link to see the far better coverage of the events by student journalists than those found in mainstream media.


Anonymous said…
Interesting, "the Pacific way", cried for definition when it was coined but today it will defy definition because PIF is as good (bad!) as the UN. Most PIF leaders gleefully participated in the gathering not to deal with matters of regional concern or interest but to participate in the opening ceremony of the RWC and see a few games. Some may still linger around until the finals. You talk of lacklustre Forum Secretary General Neroni Slade but what about the Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon? These are the type of leaders that head powerful organisations not because of their ability but are beneficiaries of interntional and regional politics that no longer reward for ability but for affiliation and loyalty. The process of their election is democratic. The cover is right: what more - it is impervious and also contains the obnoxious ordor of corruption at every level of our society. When Ban Ki Moon speaks, sorry - reads, you go for the remote control to change channels. He makes an ass of himself. Such appointees will now be common at the highest level. Neroni Slade is better than Ban ki Mooon - he does not speak publicly. He is more sensible. There are times when keeping quiet becomes a virtue, as the obvious indadequacies and incompetence are not revealed. This concept is beyond Ban ki Moon's comprehension so learn to enjoy the buffoonery as entertainment! PIF is on the point of disintegration, as China will soon gain the observer status and eventually gain dominance, kicking out the Pacific bullies - Australia and New Zealand!

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