THE Pacific is not always pacific; its hub nation, Fiji, is run by the army. Nor is it, for most of its inhabitants, the paradise the holiday posters present.
It is one region we overlook at our own peril. Former foreign minister Alexander Downer stressed last week that it is our natural sphere of influence. Or it could be, if we paid it more attention.
Australia’s bigger friends and allies, especially the US, take Canberra’s lead to manage troublesome issues in the islands and to help guide them to prosperity.
So far, Australia’s line on Fiji — that military ruler Frank Bainimarama is so unyielding and provocative that, as Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says, “you can’t have a one-way dialogue” — has led the rest of the West.
But that will continue to hold only if Canberra demonstrates that it generally retains the backing of the Pacific on this issue, and that it is on top of regional issues in general.
Our leader won’t be there, even though Australia is the outgoing chair of this premier organisation in the region. Smith may be there, depending on how the federal election campaign is going, but he’s not letting on yet.
Someone senior from Canberra will show up, Smith says, presumably someone with a safe seat.
For Australia’s policy aims to prevail, it will now need to rely on leadership at the forum summit to come from leaders broadly aligned with Canberra’s regional perspective, chiefly New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key and Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, who is angling for forum institutions to be shifted to Samoa from suspended Fiji.
The Australian government has failed to replace Pacific Islands secretary Duncan Kerr, who quit last September. And cabinet is short of people with any experience in the region other than Smith and the overburdened Simon Crean.
Australia’s aid budget is heading towards $8 billion a year by 2015. A large proportion of it is being spent in the Pacific.
Australia keeps forgetting that our continent is fringed by islands, places we mostly fly over, and through whose waters our ships sail, taking iron ore to China and bringing back 3-D television sets.
But no other industrialised country has the Third World on its doorstep in the way the Pacific is on ours. Europe’s former colonies are remote by comparison.
Events suddenly drag our attention back to the proximity of our island neighbours, and we scramble around in search of understanding, and of plausible policies. During one of those interludes of engagement, Kevin Rudd presented a Port Moresby declaration in PNG hailing “a new era of co-operation with the island nations of the Pacific”.
In the past decade or so, first the notion of an arc of instability emerged, triggering military deployments — still under way — to Solomon Islands and East Timor. Then, in December 2006 Bainimarama became the most remorseless of Fiji’s coup leaders, and he is now engaged in a bitter arm-wrestle with Canberra.
His Engaging Fiji conference last week saw him sign up four other Pacific leaders, including PNG veteran Michael Somare, and representatives from other countries, to his communique saying that “Fiji’s strategic framework for change is a credible home-grown process for positioning Fiji as a modern nation and to hold true democratic elections”.
It appears perverse that having signed up to this, they can continue to uphold the forum’s suspension of Fiji. But that is what is most likely to happen at next week’s forum, illustrating that cultural notions of solidarity are what counts, and that the same people can sign up to apparently contradictory positions on different days in different places, according to the prevailing ethos of the group.
This year the forum’s chairmanship will shift to the host, Vanuatu, whose Prime Minister Edward Natapei postponed the Melanesian Spearhead Group meeting slated for Fiji and declined to attend the replacement Engaging Fiji event, but sent his Foreign Minister Joe Natuman.
First John Howard then Julia Gillard turned to regional solutions for asylum-seekers. But such arrangements are much harder to bed down than newcomers to regional politics can conceive.
East Timor is reluctant to play ball. And while Nauru is telling the federal Coalition that it is eager to reopen its processing centre, its government is not in a great position to take any initiatives. It has not been elected for three parliaments, because the MPs returned at polls twice this year already remain equally divided. Supply is obtained only by constantly rolled over emergency powers.
The pilot Pacific migrant workers scheme has floundered, the ponderous structure involving agents failing to bring in the limited numbers envisaged.
The annual ministerial forum between Australia and PNG was scrapped by Canberra this year due to the election, and replaced with a quick visit by Smith.
The Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands has been a substantial — though expensive at more than $1bn — success story, one whose core method marks a strong contrast to conventional aid dogma.
But the Solomons’ national election, due on the same day the forum summit opens, will provide a clearer view of the durability of this ambitious project.
The awkwardness of our situation derives partly from the intense familiarity of islanders with Australia, whose domestic news — including sport, in which Pacific players are increasingly prominent — often spills over into their media, while at the same time Australians are not perceived as islanders, any more than we are seen further north as Asians. Australian politicians are thus almost as well known to the island elites as they are to Australian voters. Their inattention during the current campaign to international issues can’t be fudged by a glib phrase.
Everyone who mattered knew as soon as Gillard referred to a regional solution that the problem it was aimed to resolve was essentially Australia’s, not the region’s..
The ABC’s veteran Pacific reporter Sean Dorney pointed out, however, at a Lowy Institute discussion of such issues in Sydney this week, that because the Pacific is watching closely, sometimes it applauds too. “Kevin Rudd’s apology to Aboriginal Australia resonated especially widely in the Pacific,” Dorney says.
Australian National University Pacific studies convener Katerina Martina Teaiwa, from Fiji, says that “Australia does some wonderful things in the Pacific”, especially praising the role of the youth ambassadors. “It would be great if the Australian government learned from such people on the ground in the islands,” she says.
She points out that “while Australians view the Pacific as out there, growing numbers live here, including many who have come via New Zealand. There are plenty in Australian jails, for instance.”
PNG’s high commissioner to Australia, Charles Lepani, says there is a generation gap about knowledge of the Pacific in Australia, with younger people knowing far less. He is optimistic that Smith will attend the forum.
Lepani says PNG wants to keep the door open for Fiji, with Somare one of the leaders who attended last week’s Engaging Fiji meeting, out of concern that “if Fiji were allowed to float away to other influences, the cost to the region of salvaging the relationship would become too great”.
Unless Fiji is hauled on to the table at the forum meeting, the agenda will be dominated by the long-drawn-out saga of Pacer Plus. This comprises the extension of the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, an intra-island trade deal — though one that encompasses many exceptions, chiefly to protect local manufacturers.
Extending it in the shape of Pacer Plus to include Australia and New Zealand would vastly improve its scope and provide a much-needed head-turning effect, encouraging business to take another look at the region.
But this is proving contentious, the debate dragging on as growing numbers of international non-government organisations add their voices of opposition, and as Fiji’s crucial role — as the region’s communications hub — becomes difficult to negotiate while it remains suspended from the forum.
Subsistence — fishing and farming — remains an option for many islanders, but one that provides a diminishing proportion of their daily needs and aspirations.
The ANU’s Teaiwa rightly points to sport and culture as two areas in which the Pacific enjoys a natural advantage, and the forum needs to place these higher on its agenda.
But they are unlikely to prove sufficient to meet the growing expectations of islanders for the material benefits of modernity.
The Asian Development Bank forecasts that the Pacific island economies will expand by just 0.5 per cent in 2010, after contracting by 1.4 per cent in 2009. And even this poor performance is in many countries eroded by high inflation and rapid population growth.
But yet again, a resources boom in PNG is throwing it another economic lifeline, reflected in its Asia-level growth rate.
The $16.5bn liquefied natural gas project being developed by ExxonMobil, Lepani says “holds out the chance for us to move on” — including to shed the sometimes awkward aid relationship with Australia.
He says Australia’s assistance in establishing trust funds in which to place the vast LNG income may prove crucial in preventing “itchy fingers getting hold of them”.
And support for the project was already paying off, with $2bn construction work pouring into Queensland.
In contrast to the Pacific, the ADB expects developing Asia to bounce back to high growth this year after shrugging off the effects of the global financial crisis.
East Asia comprises the main market for many of the islands’ exports. Yet the two regions are mostly kept in different silos by international bodies, aid agencies and academic disciplines.
There is little cross-fertilisation and little spillover from the lessons of Asian development success to the Pacific.
Many visits to Asia by islanders are, unfortunately, chiefly in supplication. This reflects a colonial and post-colonial focus in the Pacific — led by its political elite — on the distribution rather than the creation of wealth, reflecting both traditional “big man” concepts and a modern over-reliance on government.
The Pacer Plus deal, despite its flaws, at least re-orients that focus towards growth rather than aid and spending.
But Australia’s voice in its favour at the forum will be weighed in part by the influence of its representation.
The election timing is bad luck in this regard, but it does appear to fit a long-standing pattern of intermittent disregard.
Pacific club leaves Fiji on the outer
* The South Pacific Forum was founded in 1971 to improve the mutual interests of its member nations, paying particular attention to trade, tourism, shipping and education.
* The first meeting in 1971 was the initiative of New Zealand and held in Wellington.
* Australia and New Zealand are significant aid donors and offer large markets for island exports.
* Regional peacekeeping in the Solomon Islands (2003 to date), Nauru (2004-09) and Tonga (2006) have helped stabilise Pacific Island nations.
* Such missions emerged after the Biketawa Declaration at the Kiribati summit in 2000.
* At the August 2008 meeting, the forum threatened to suspend Fiji if it did not hold elections by March 2009. A deadline of May 1 was rejected by Fiji, which was suspended indefinitely the next day.
* The suspension was described by forum chairman and Toke Talagi of Niue as “particularly timely given the recent disturbing deterioration of the political, legal and human rights situation in Fiji since April 10, 2009”.
* The forum will welcome Fiji when it returns to constitutional democracy through free and fair elections.
Source: The Cairns Post