What lies ahead for the Forum?

By Dr Roman Grynberg

February 2013

Islands Forum
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The last three years have certainly been amongst the most difficult in the history of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Following the coup by Frank Bainimarama in 2006, the Forum excluded Fiji from its meetings and created an isolation that has officially continued but has crumbled as more and more of Fiji’s neighbours have been showing a willingness to deal with the incumbent administration in Suva.

This isolation of the government in Suva by the Forum was pushed wholeheartedly by Australia and New Zealand and initially supported in a very grudging way by the Pacific islands states. Some like Samoa were ardent supporters of the Forum’s ‘cordon sanitarie’ around Bainimarama’s administration. Samoa left their man, former Samoan ambassador and current Secretary-General of the Forum Tuiloma Neroni Slade, to implement a policy conceived in Canberra and supported by Apia and Wellington.

The only problem was sitting in Suva it was a difficult for Tuiloma to do his masters’ bidding when increasingly Bainimarama was able to undermine the apparent but weak Forum solidarity regarding democracy, especially in Melanesia as well as amongst the smaller neighbours like Tuvalu which, while totally financially dependent on Canberra, were logistically totally dependent upon Fiji.

In tandem with the Forum’s failing Fiji policy, the last three years have seen the accelerating loss of any faith in the Forum as an institution that could conceivably represent any interest other than that of Australia and New Zealand and those governments totally financially dependent upon them.

The first great loss was conceived as a means of dealing with the islands during the PACER Plus negotiations. The Forum Secretariat recognised that it could not help the islands in their negotiations for a trade agreement with Australia and New Zealand.

The formal reason given was that it could not take sides but the real reason was that the islands no longer trusted the Forum. In fact, the Forum always seemed to take sides—not in favour of the islands but in favour of Canberra and Wellington.

All substantial economic documents the organisation produced was given to Canberra and Wellington first and they were allowed to change documents before any islands state saw them. It was for this reason that the islands created the Office of the Chief Trade Adviser in Port Vila to provide advice during the negotiations that was not controlled by Canberra.

Last year, under pressure from Papua New Guinea, a special leaders summit occurred in Port Moresby which essentially agreed to the creation of a Pacific ACP Secretariat in PNG, taking away a further function from the increasingly emasculated Forum Secretariat.

In large part, this was driven by PNG’s commercial interests in dominating the Pacific ACP group agenda but was also supported by those countries which felt, quite correctly, that excluding Fiji from ACP meetings at the Forum, relegating officials to SPC meetings and excluding Bainimarama and his ministers was a step too far.

Fiji, while subject to sanctions by both the Forum and Commonwealth, had not been excluded from the ACP councils or formally sanctioned by the European Union. As a result, the Forum’s decision to not include Fiji in ACP meetings that occur under the auspices of the Forum and not provide ministers with services was seen as too much.

Prior to the Port Moresby meeting, PIFS, clearly sensing that its position had become untenable, tried to circulate a paper saying it would support Fiji but it was clearly too late. The Forum has tried to loudly protest the decision to create a Pacific ACP office, further hollowing out its economic functions.

There are, of course, several problems with the Pacific ACP leaders’ decision. The first is that who will fund the organisation? Certainly, based on all the precedents—it will not be the islands who love creating organisations with highly paid directors but not paying for it themselves.

Can PNG provide any real assurances that if the EU does fund such a body that there will be something resembling good financial governance? And perhaps most importantly, tucked away quietly in Port Moresby, will it be anything other than a tool for the PNG government and private sector to advance their interests.

The islands’ decision to move the ACP leaders meeting to PNG will almost certainly mean that ACP work will also migrate from the Forum. It may be one decision the other islands will come to regret in the coming years as PNG expands its oil and gas driven power and influence in the region.

Tuiloma has just begun his last three-year term and will become in effect a lame duck late next year when his heir apparent, the ‘eternal-Secretary-General-in-waiting’ and former Fiji Foreign Minister, Kaliopate Tavola will probably be anointed.

Tuiloma has overseen the dismantling of the trade and economic functions of the Forum. He has done his masters’ bidding on Fiji and they will be most pleased with him.

But as a superannuated septuagenarian who will trot off into the sunset, how will his legacy look? Not good unless he does something in the next two years with the only remaining economic instrument left in the Forum’s purview—the Pacific Plan.

In theory and on superficial reading, the Pacific Plan constituted the most serious effort ever by political leaders in the Pacific to address the fundamental inability of most of the government administrations in the region to deal with a complex range of issues by virtue of their small size.
There were numerous objectives but essentially it was a political attempt to pool resources and deal with the absence of economies of scale in the islands.

The Pacific Plan was a rather typical top-down attempt at reform. It was initiated not by an islands leader but by then New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark who remained the driving force behind it throughout 2003/2004.

An eminent persons group was formed, special leaders summit was called and islands states sagaciously nodded approval for the Pacific Plan in 2004. Having received an endorsement for her ‘big idea’, Clark could ‘tick the box’ and move on to bigger things.

The only problem was that neither Clark’s officials and certainly not their Australian counterparts took the Pacific Plan seriously. What evolved was a classic and cynical bureaucratic response to what was perceived as an imposed, alien and unnecessary political process.

ANZ and regional officials basically took the regional aid programmes that they were already implementing and renamed them the Pacific Plan.

There was also little or no support from the islands as it soon became evident that the Plan was merely window dressing, a renaming of whatever Australia and New Zealand bureaucrats were, in any case, planning to do.

Thus the Pacific Plan, became the walking dead, a political zombie from a previous decade that continues to live in name only. It failed because it had no obvious island champions nor any real roots in the islands.

Now the Pacific Plan is being reviewed by former PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta and if the normal course of such reviews proceed, then what will emerge are eminently sensible but with minor technocratic adjustments.

Many of the proposals for the real pooling of resources have never happened and will never be implemented until political leaders at the Forum stop allowing their bureaucrats to dictate the direction and pace of integration, ie until they actually lead.

Tuiloma could use the review of the Forum to address the real political issues that underlie the failure of the Pacific Plan to make any concrete change in the way Pacific Islands deal with their problems which are structural in nature. This would give Tuiloma’s tenure as Secretary-General a real legacy that matters to the future of the islands.

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