Australia resists new-look forum, Former diplomat Tavola draws up regional issues plan
By Online Editor
8:24 pm GMT+12, 21/01/2015, Fiji
8:24 pm GMT+12, 21/01/2015, Fiji
By Nic Maclellan
The last time an Australian Prime Minister attended the Pacific Islands Forum was in August 2012.
And a number of pressing issues will draw Australian attention to the region in 2015.
Following Fiji’s elections, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has been wooing the Bainimarama government to return to full participation in Forum activities. Over cocktails last October, Bishop and Prime Minister Bainimarama agreed to meet in Sydney to review the regional architecture, scheduled for February.
The deal between Suva and Canberra has caused some concern at the Forum Secretariat, which was not consulted before the summit was scheduled. The agenda is still in flux, because there have been a series of studies on the role and mandate of regional institutions, including the 2012 Winder review of the Forum Secretariat and the 2013 Morauta review of the Pacific Plan. Regional bureaucrats are unenthusiastic about yet another costly discussion about Pacific institutions, at a time when Canberra, Port Moresby and Suva are jousting over regional leadership.
Australia’s engagement with Fiji is also complicated by statements from Prime Minister Bainimarama and Foreign Minister Inoke Kubuabola that the Forum should be restructured to reflect new regional realities.
Former Fiji Foreign Minister Kaliopate Tavola has been developing an issues paper for his country’s Foreign Ministry, proposing a “New Pacific Islands Forum” that would see Forum Island Countries at the heart of the regional body and Australia and New Zealand in a new role as donors and development partners.
The Australian government will resist efforts to transform its current equal membership of the Forum, citing shared regional interests in stability, security and prosperity. But the Abbott Government’s policies on trade and environment are increasingly at odds with its Pacific neighbours.
The deepest gulf between Canberra and Forum Island Countries is over climate policy, with small island states regarding this as a central threat to their security and prosperity. By mid-year, countries must make significant pledges on post-2020 emissions reductions. Ongoing action is crucial for the December 2015 UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Paris, which aims to finalise a global climate agreement.
Australia’s current commitment for a five per cent reduction of emissions from 2000 levels by 2020 must be strengthened, but the Abbott Government has boxed itself in, making it harder to commit to ambitious cuts.
Having destroyed the Gillard Government’s carbon tax, abolished the Climate Commission and begun negotiations to reduce Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET), Prime Minister Abbott is pinning his hopes on a “direct action” programme through an A$2.5 billion Emissions Reduction Fund. But many analysts argue that “direct action” cannot be expanded in a cost effective way as Australia increases its emissions reduction targets beyond five percent.
At the G20 meeting held in Brisbane last November, Prime Minister Abbott gained kudos for hosting leaders from China, the United States, India, Britain and France. However the host government was angered as a meeting that was supposed to focus on jobs, trade and growth was diverted into debate about economic impacts of climate change.
The Abbott Government’s isolation was highlighted by public criticism from US President Obama, who stressed the threat to the Great Barrier Reef from ocean warming and acidification.
Last year, G20 members pledged significant funding to the Green Climate Fund (GCF): US$3 billion from the United States, $1 billion each from France and Germany and significant amounts from Sweden, Norway, Mexico, Korea and other nations (after initially refusing support, even Canada’s conservative government pledged $275 million). After a year as the only OECD country refusing support to this global climate funding mechanism, Canberra’s embarrassment was finally too much.
At the UNFCCC negotiations in Lima last month, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced a A$200 million commitment to the GCF over four years, drawn from the Australian aid budget (Much of these funds are earmarked for rainforests and REDD+, which will benefit Indonesia and Melanesian nations but not smaller island states). In Lima, however, Australia continued to oppose AOSIS policy on issues like loss and damage and differentiated responses.
Following the merger of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia’s aid budget is again under significant threat. Facing loss of revenue from falling commodity prices, Australian Treasurer Joe Hocke has announced yet another cut to the overseas aid budget, the third reduction in the past year.
In December’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO), Hocke announced an aid cut of A$3.7 billion over four years, on top of the $7.6 billion reduction in the May 2014 budget.
The Pacific has been partly insulated from past cuts, but the new policy will hit bilateral and regional initiatives.
SOURCE: ISLANDS BUSINESS/PACNEWS