Polynesia – a new pathway

Polynesian countries may have missed the significance of participating at the inaugural Pacific Islands Development Forum, writes Kalafi Moala.

Polynesian countries as a group may have missed the significance of participating at the recent inaugural Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) held in Nadi, Fiji on August 7 – 9. Host of the forum, Fiji’s Prime Minister, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama hinted disappointment in his opening address, that it was unfortunate some countries did not attend, possibly because they regarded the meeting as political instead of focusing on development.

Professor Richard Herr of Fiji University told ABC that he thinks Prime Minister Bainimarama was taking a swipe at the Polynesian countries that were missing, notably Samoa, Niue, and the Cook Islands. But representing Tonga was Lord Vaea, who is Minister of Internal Affairs. The professor also alleged that PIDF is clearly ‘intended to marginalize the Pacific Islands Forum — without Australia and New Zealand.’ His comments may further advance the allegation that Polynesian states are far more dominated by Australian and New Zealand interests than any of the other Pacific Island states.

This assertion may not be surprising as Fiji remains suspended from the Pacific Islands Forum, and Prime Minister Bainimarama has expressed the view that the Pacific Islands Forum is an exclusive club which interferes in the affairs of other nations. There is also the widespread critical view that the Forum is too much under the thumb of Australia and New Zealand. And in regards to rejoining the Pacific Islands Forum, Fiji has expressed disinterest for now ‘unless there were some changes.’

Despite what Fiji’s Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola described as ‘negative campaigning from New Zealand’, the Nadi meeting was a success. PIDF participants included leaders and ministers from 14 Pacific countries out of the 23 invited; and observers from 25 countries including Australia and New Zealand. But most notable among those absent were the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Peter O’Neill, who made a state visit to New Zealand at the same time; and Samoa’s Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Sailele.

Samoa’s Tuilaepa is arguably the most outspoken critic among Pacific leaders, of Fiji and Prime Minister Bainimarama in particular. As an enthusiastic campaigner for the merits of democracy among Pacific states, he has not pulled any punches in his relentless attacks on Commodore Bainimarama, who, by the way, is the brain behind PIDF. One wonders however, whether PIDF could have been an ideal opportunity for Polynesian states to rebuild relations with Fiji, and to link together to an initiative more focused on trade and development than on politics.

The main driver behind the formation of the Polynesian Leaders Group (PLG) was Prime Minister Tuilaepa, although two years later, there is still nothing concrete in terms of purpose or operational agenda. If Samoa’s Tuilaepa wants the Polynesian Leaders Group to get anywhere, then Fiji must be engaged. Fiji, of course, is a significant part of the powerful Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG), but it will need to play a significant role in PLG if the group expects to have relevancy to meeting its own member’s needs. Fiji may be Melanesian in racial heritage, but historically and culturally, Fiji is as much Polynesian as any state in PLG. Prime Minister Tuilaepa, who is the leader of PLG cannot afford to continue his outspoken oppositional stance against Prime Minister Bainimarama and Fiji.

“The time to engage with Fiji is now.” – President Anote Tong
Former Prime Minister of Tonga, Dr Feleti Sevele urged ‘coolness of heads’ in 2008 among Pacific States, saying that Fiji is too important to be marginalized. He advocated continuous dialogue with Fiji instead of rejection. This has been the position of the Tongan government to this day. And the participation of Lord Vaea, a high ranking noble and senior government minister, is evidence of this.

In any case, the formation of PIDF is not like setting up a rugby franchise, a sport Polynesians are good at, but rather a strategic alliance among Pacific Island nations focused on development. In rugby, it is one teams poised against another oppositional team. But in development, it involves dialogue, planning, collaboration, and cooperation to battle the common issues of poverty, natural disasters, and lack of economic growth.

The President of Kiribati, Anote Tong, touted to be one of the most eloquent and effective leaders of the Pacific Islands, said in Nadi ‘the time to engage with Fiji is now.’ He told ABC Radio, “We understand the political situation (in Fiji) but I’ve always personally believed we should at all times continue with the engagement. Now I think it’s gathering more momentum and I’m very happy to see it culminating in this Pacific Islands Development Forum and involved a whole lot of other countries, including new countries that have not participated in the past.”

The participation of Xanana Gusmao, Prime Minister of Timor Leste, was significant from the standpoint that he wants his country to affiliate more with the Pacific Islands. He was allegedly pressured by Australia not to attend the meeting but he went to Nadi anyway and delivered a keynote address.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Darcy Lilo, expressed a different view from his Samoan counterpart. Not only does Mr. Lilo believes there is a place for the new forum, and because of its aims in development issues, countries need to come together to share ideas and experiences that would ‘encourage more social and economic development for their people.’

Prime Minister Bainimarama has gone ahead and offered for Fiji to host a secretariat for PIDF, and that Fiji would provide the initial funding for this. If Fiji’s contribution to the success of MSG means anything, then there is hope this new move to set up PIDF and a secretariat in Fiji is more than an attempt to marginalize the Pacific Islands Forum. It may even be the best and most self-determined pathway forward for Pacific development without dictates from the regional powers of Australia and New Zealand.