Lowy Institute

Tony Abbott flew in to Port Moresby last night for his first prime ministerial visit to Australia's nearest neighbour. Karl Claxton has foreshadowed some of the major themes of the visit over at The Strategist.

Despite the range of issues on the agenda and whatever the expected results of the visit, the most important outcome for Tony Abbott will be the establishment of a friendly relationship with his counterpart.

Prime Minister O'Neill

The two leaders had an unfortunate start to their relationship before the Australian federal election, with O'Neill taking then Opposition Leader Abbott to task for misrepresenting his remarks in relation to the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement. But both leaders are pragmatic and will be anxious to demonstrate they have moved on with a positive meeting today, during which they are due to sign an Economic Cooperation Treaty, setting out a framework for bilateral cooperation in trade, investment, business and development cooperation.

It would be tempting for Abbott to leave the management of bilateral relations to his capable foreign minister, Julie Bishop, who has already built positive relationships with PNG ministers. Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea, however, require prime ministerial attention. The relationship has thrived and dived on personal contacts between prime ministers in the past and the range and depth of current bilateral activities means that Tony Abbott needs to take overall responsibility for the relationship. To do that, he needs to understand the character and motivations of his counterpart.

Abbott's visit comes after a period of rapid change in Papua New Guinea's cabinet. In the last month O'Neill has sacked four ministers: Treasurer Don Polye, Petroleum and Energy Minister William Duma, Industrial Relations Minister Mark Maipakai and Higher Education Minister David Arore. While political volatility is not unusual in Papua New Guinea, Peter O'Neill's time as prime minister has been characterised by his dominance and commitment to stability, so the rush of sackings was surprising.

But what looks like political chaos is really evidence of further consolidation by O'Neill.

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O'Neill moved early after the 2012 elections to consolidate his leadership. He has legislated to extend the grace period during which he is protected from a motion of no confidence from 18 to 30 months. He has reduced the number of sitting days parliament is required to meet each year from 63 to 40 and he has built a governing coalition numbering 105 out of 111 seats in parliament, a majority any prime minister in a Westminster-style system would envy.

O'Neill's sacking of Don Polye, who was widely respected as treasurer, was the most controversial of his recent reshuffle. While O'Neill claimed Polye was causing instability in his government, the real reason for his sacking was Polye's refusal to sign loan agreements worth A$1.2 billion to enable the PNG Government to re-acquire a 10.1% share in Oil Search. Polye believed the purchase of Oil Search shares was a bad decision and claimed no due diligence was done on the transaction.

Peter O'Neill's credo is to ensure PNG has a stake in its own development. He is under pressure to deliver the benefits of Papua New Guinea's impressive resources boom not only to the elites who support him but also to the constituents who vote for him and his coalition. There is a perception among a number of O'Neill's supporters that it is mainly foreign companies which benefit from the global demand for PNG's resources, and that they are taking their profits out of the country.

If O'Neill is to stay in power over the long-term – always a difficult proposition in Papua New Guinea – he must be seen to fulfil his promises and increase the ownership of the state or PNG-owned companies in major resources projects, investments and even the Australian aid program.

This mission influenced O'Neill's controversial decision to nationalise Ok Tedi and attempt to seize control of PNG Sustainable Development Program , his willingness to sack Polye to effect the purchase of the shares in Oil Search and his intention to revise media ownership laws to favour local investors. His negotiation of the Joint Understanding between Australia and Papua New Guinea on further bilateral cooperation on health, education and law and order, under which PNG acquired greater say in how the additional aid package associated with the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement was spent, is also evidence of O'Neill's interest in asserting PNG's stake in flagship national projects.

Meanwhile, Abbott, with a few exceptions, has refused to commit taxpayer funds to private companies owned by foreign investors in order to rescue them or influence them to remain in Australia. And Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos has just stood aside while he gives evidence to the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales.

In PNG, O'Neill has just appointed a Treasurer, Patrick Pruaitch, famous for his alleged corrupt dealings as Treasurer and later Forestry Minister in the Somare Government. The difference in approach is obvious.

Prime Minister Abbott is accompanied on his trip to PNG by nine senior business figures from Australia, who support the Government's objective to expand economic ties with Papua New Guinea. This is a great initiative and O'Neill, who is practised at telling foreign audiences what they want to hear, will welcome this evidence of commitment to PNG from Australian business.

If Abbott wants to build a good personal relationship with O'Neill, he should encourage O'Neill's commitment to foreign investment in line with the Treaty they are signing. But he should also demonstrate that he understands PNG's desire to have a greater stake in its own future. It may be too early to have a frank discussion about how PNG can do that without risking alienating new foreign investors, but if the prime minister of PNG's largest source of trade, investment and aid wants to have that conversation, he needs to build trust first.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Foreign Minister Julie Bishop believes PNG is one of Australia's highest foreign policy priorities and is committed to strengthening ties with PNG.

Australia's merchandise trade with our nearest neighbour totals $5.7 billion and Australia's investments in PNG are as high as $18.6 billion. PNG is also Australia's largest recipient of aid, a constructive ally in the Pacific region and a security partner. The Australian High Commission in Port Moresby is one of the largest Australian missions in the world, managing a complex political relationship and coordinating the activities of multiple federal government agencies. Bishop has proposed a range of new initiatives to broaden and deepen the relationship.

But just as with Indonesia, Australia's obsession with asylum seekers now threatens to weaken the positive momentum in Australia-PNG relations.

The 17 February riots and the tensions within the detention centre they exposed, the negative sentiment of prominent figures on Manus towards the detention centre and resettlement of refugees, the growing opposition to the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement as revealed through various social media forums in PNG, and concerns like those expressed by the influential Catholic Bishops Conference in PNG about the asylum seeker centre are all potential triggers for generating deep resentment towards Australia in PNG.

The situation is not aided by irresponsible and offensive descriptions of Manus by senior Australian politicians and members of the media, who have paid scant attention to the impact of Australia's policy on the people of Manus.

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Politicians including former House of Representatives Speaker Anna Burke, independent MP Andrew Wilkie and Greens Senator Sarah-Hanson Young have described Manus Island as a 'gulag' and a 'hell-hole'. Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition described Manus Island as an 'inherently dangerous place'. Waleed Aly went further, writing that PNG is a 'deeply unliveable country, racked by lawlessness and violence'.

These opinions have been countered by better informed writers such as David Bridie and Rowan Callick. But it is the negative descriptions which play in Papua New Guinea where, unlike in Indonesia, Australia's media is followed avidly, not least through Australian television stations broadcast in PNG.

The Australian and PNG governments are alert to the risk that the asylum seeker issue poses to their interests in enhancing the relationship. The announcement of a new monthly Joint Ministerial Forum involving Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Papua New Guinea Minister for Foreign Affairs and Immigration Rimbink Pato and Attorney General Kerenga Kua will 'provide clear direction and oversight to the implementation of the Refugee Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) and provide a timely and accountable process to ensure that the arrangement is being converted into tangible and practical outcomes.'

The early focus of the forum will be on investigating this month's violence, but it will also deal with processing claims, resettlement, and delivering the $420 million of projects that are part of the resettlement deal. While Julie Bishop's focus in these meetings will be on delivering the sweeteners of the RRA, her participation alongside her PNG counterpart will enable her to maintain a wider focus on enhancements to the relationship and ensure the asylum seeker issue does not undermine these.

The challenge is significant. Lowy Institute Fellow Khalid Koser warned of the dangers of dressing up the Refugee Resttlement Arrangement as a benefit to PNG. He said a similar approach by the EU in making Greece the outer wall of Europe has seen rising Greek resentment against the EU and more violence against migrants.

Manus has an enviable reputation in PNG as a peaceful province, with high education levels and literacy rates which have seen Manusians prominent in senior levels of the public and private sectors. If the violence we saw during the 17 February riots was indeed triggered, even in part, by the racial vilification of local residents by some asylum seekers, as Sean Dorney suggests, then Australia has cause to be concerned.

It is not lost on the people of Manus, even if it is on Australians, that a number of the asylum seekers come from countries (namely Iran) which are both richer than PNG and have more employment opportunities than exist on Manus. If they are found to be refugees and then are able to enjoy more privileges than the citizens of Manus themselves, thanks to Australian assistance, there is likely to be resentment and further unrest in a province which has little experience of violence. Some of the anger may even be directed at Australian interests, be it government, businesses or nationals.

Even with both governments working on calming tensions, there are limits to the powers of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill's government. His authority may not be accepted by the people of Manus if they continue to feel they are not being heard.

The question of whether or not Papua New Guinea will resettle any asylum seeker determined to be refugees also remains open. Prominent PNG blogger Deni Tokunai has pointed to likely difficulties in resettling refugees in PNG. Processing and resettlement will be the stumbling blocks. Rural resettlement of refugees would need the consent of complicated customary landowner groups; urban solutions would need to take into account urban growth, constituent perceptions, and the questionable nature of many state-owned land titles, some of which already house significant settlements of Papua New Guineans.

Despite the commitment under the Regional Resettlement Arrangement to resettle asylum seekers recognised as genuine refugees in PNG, Peter O'Neill has been inconsistent in his reassurances on this issue. His resolve will be tested by strong local opposition to resettlement. This uncertainty is likely to frustrate an Australian Government under pressure to make the policy work.

The decision to house asylum seekers on Manus may well stop the boats, but if it also stops or even hinders the development of a closer relationship with PNG, will it be worth it?

Photo by Flickr user DIBP Images.

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Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop sprang a surprise on Australia's Fiji watchers last Friday. She not only pulled off what looked like a friendly meeting with Fiji's authoritarian prime minister but also revealed she would soon be normalising relations with Fiji, officially in the freezer since Commodore Bainimarama's military coup of December 2006.

I wrote here about the risks of the Australian Government waiting until after Fiji's promised elections in September to change course with its policy and suggested Bishop initiate contact with Bainimarama after he stood down from heading the military. 

bishop bainimarama australia fiji relations

But I did not think it likely that Bishop would move to normalise relations quite so early in the year. Despite her commitment in opposition, I thought the influence of cautious DFAT officials and the advice of New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who has been burned on several occasions for making overtures to Fiji, would act as a brake on her enthusiasm for normalisation.

Now that we are here, what does it all mean?

The details of Bishop's policy were reported by Rowan Callick (who accompanied Bishop to Fiji) in The Australian on Saturday. In addition to support for election preparations, Australia will introduce a 'twinning' arrangement in areas including foreign policy, finance and the Public Service Commission, with Fiji officials working in Canberra, and Australians in Suva (incidentally, an initiative I suggested back in 2011). Australia will also expand its seasonal workers' program to include Fiji. A review of the travel sanctions which so concerned the Fiji Government is underway and will be presented to cabinet.

In the defence sphere, Australia has invited Fiji to send a defence representative to Canberra, and wants to reinstate an Australian defence attaché in Suva.  Fiji will be invited to participate again in Australia’s Pacific patrol boat program. A defence co-operation program that includes joint exercises and staff-college training will be re-established.

These could be interpreted as rewards for Fiji, which in the view of many critics has not done nearly enough to deserve them. This interpretation, however, would be wrong.

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By moving now, Australia sets its own terms for the relationship with Fiji, no longer hamstrung by waiting for an unreliable Fiji Government to act on conditions set by previous Australian governments and the Pacific Islands Forum.

Bishop's approach restores a political element to the relationship, which at the very least gives Canberra the ability to keep talking to Bainimarama, who has the last word on whether elections go ahead or not. Australia also needs a political relationship with Fiji for other reasons: so it can pursue important regional or international policy initiatives and so it can elevate requests for the Fiji Government's assistance when Australian investors or tourists need help.

If Fiji has an election that meets even a minimum standard of freedom and fairness, Australia would have no choice but to accept the result, which may very well be an elected government of Voreqe Bainimarama. Far better that Bishop establish a relationship with him now on Australia's terms than to seek to meet him for the first time after the election, when he, not Canberra, would set the terms.

Australia's new policy is  likely to be popular with many other members of the Pacific Islands Forum, which were uncomfortable with the impact of isolating Fiji and will welcome Australia's leadership. That the Ministerial Contact Group visiting Fiji last week recommended inviting Fiji to rejoin PACER Plus and Pacific Islands Forum Trade Ministers' meetings is an indication that the Forum is ready to move away from its own policy of isolation.

Bishop's policy undermines the Fiji Government’s favourite tactic of blaming Australia to avoid taking responsibility for Fiji's economic problems. This is important in the lead-up to elections where the Fiji Government should be held to account by voters for its own economic decisions, not the actions of foreign powers.

The decision on military cooperation has mutual benefits. It gives the influential (and ruling) Fiji military what it most craves: the opportunity to engage with a first-class military. This will help it upgrade the skills which have suffered since the 2006 coup so it can continue meeting the expectations of UN peacekeeping operations. It also means Fiji will be less likely to continue making overtures to China and Russia for military assistance, which will mitigate the concerns of Australia's defence and strategic planners about the influence of other major powers in the Pacific Islands region.

Most importantly, the policy gives Bishop a new range of policy levers. If Bainimarama does renege on holding elections, Bishop can express sincere regret that he proved to be untrustworthy and pull back on one or more of the new initiatives. Under the previous policy, Bishop had few additional sticks (short of economic sanctions which hurt poor Fijians and Australian business interests) that she could have employed to signal Australia's disappointment.

Bishop's strategy is the right one for Australia but it is important to be realistic about what it will achieve within Fiji. It is unlikely to induce Bainimarama to change his personality, keep the military out of politics, ease up on restrictions on the media and unions, and support enhanced human rights, at least in the short term. Australia's new approach, however, returns Australia to a position of strength in bilateral and regional discussions, where it can hope to exert more influence than it has in the last seven years.

Photo courtesy of the Fiji Ministry of Information.

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This is an important moment for Fiji.

Today Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop makes her first visit to Fiji as part of the Pacific Islands Forum's Ministerial Contact Group. Foreign ministers from Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are due to meet Fiji's Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum and Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola as well as the Electoral Commission, registered political parties, civil society organisations and trade unions. The Ministers will formulate policy positions that will guide the Pacific Islands Forum's approach to Fiji after elections due in September.

Julie Bishop will also conduct a separate meeting with Prime Minister Bainimarama.

In Julie Bishop, Fiji has a new minister with an open mind who is committed to normalising bilateral relations. True to her earlier commitments to pursue normalisation of relations with Fiji, she sent very deliberate signals to the Fiji Government with this interview on Australia Network yesterday.  She discussed normalisation, said she was not imposing conditions on her discussions, and canvassed the rebuilding of economic and defence ties. She said travel sanctions were under review and she flagged more support for elections. 

Former Coalition Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who was responsible for the original smart sanctions on Fiji after the 2006 coup, has re-entered the debate on Fiji this week. Declaring himself opposed to sanctions and acknowledging that Bainimarama is in a strong position which Australia cannot do much about, he has lent support to Bishop's plans to normalise relations.

The Bishop visit presents a big opportunity for Fiji. For all the bad blood between the two countries since the 2006 coup, the Fiji Government knows Fiji's economy is heavily reliant on Australian tourists and Australian investment and trade. 

An Australian foreign minister for the first time has indicated that she wants to normalise relations and comes to meetings in Fiji without defined expectations. A landmark meeting between Bishop and Prime Minister Bainimarama is on the agenda, a positive development which elevates Australia's relationship with Fiji from one conducted by officials to a political one, a move which I have argued would be timely

Yet the Fiji Government has a history of missing opportunities to reset the relationships damaged by its 2006 military coup.

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It has wasted many an opportunity offered by changes of government in Australia and New Zealand and several changes of foreign minister in Australia (Bishop is the fifth Australian foreign minister Fiji will have dealt with since Bainimarama took power in 2006) to have a dialogue about improving relations.

Fiji has not only missed opportunities with Australia. After Fiji made a big effort to expand its relationship with Papua New Guinea in April last year, Fiji Foreign Minister Kubuabola used a speech in Brisbane in July to not only to castigate Australia but insult Papua New Guinea.  PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has since been less than friendly, choosing to visit New Zealand instead of attending Bainimarama's inaugural Pacific Islands Development Forum in August, and making life difficult for Fiji's major investments in his country, with pressure put on Fiji TV's investment in PNG's EMTV.

Before the new foreign minister sets foot in Fiji, the Fiji Government has reverted to its favourite strategy of vilifying the Australian Government. Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum has been openly critical of Australia's sanctions and dismissed overtures from the Australian High Commission.

The Fiji Government needs to think seriously about how it manages its engagement with Julie Bishop. If Bainimarama and Sayed-Khaiyum adopt a friendly stance and are forthcoming about election preparations and their own political intentions, they could induce a constructive policy response from Australia. If they adopt their publicly belligerent manner in their private meetings, they are unlikely to secure Bishop's trust. Even foreign ministers have their pride, and if Bishop is harangued and insulted, her continued commitment to normalising relations with Fiji might be tested.

For her part, Bishop needs to have a few concessions to put on the table before the elections to give her an advantage in what are likely to be difficult discussions. She already has electoral assistance on offer. She could also offer to start preliminary military-to-military talks about renewing defence ties after the elections. Consistent with the Abbott Government's commitment to economic diplomacy, Bishop could also propose an initiative where officials and private sector representatives from both countries meet to discuss ways trade and investment relations could be enhanced.

Bishop has demonstrated some adroit handling of the media over the last week in relation to her visit to Papua New Guinea and in preparation for the Fiji visit. Her decision to have ABC New Zealand correspondent Dominique Schwartz accompany her to Fiji is clever. It sends a valuable signal about Australia's interest in media freedom. But just as importantly, because Fiji journalists are reluctant to report anything not approved by the Fiji Government, Schwartz's presence means Australia and the region have a reasonable chance of learning what is really going on.

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On her first visit to Papua New Guinea as Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop has reconfirmed the high priority the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship has for Australian foreign policy and declared her deep affection for the country. 

A frequent visitor to PNG as shadow minister, Bishop was a familiar face to Papua New Guinea government ministers, business and media on the first day of her visit in Port Moresby. Her decision to visit PNG three times for extended trips while in opposition was smart. She appeared instantly at ease in her press conference with PNG Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato at Parliament House in Port Moresby and has been treated as an old friend rather than a new kid on the block.

I wrote in September last year that one of the tasks Bishop should focus on during her first visit to PNG should be meeting and listening to women working in civil society organisations, health, education, agriculture and government.  She did just that yesterday at a roundtable with 18 high powered Papua New Guinea women working in senior positions in business, government, law and justice and civil society.

Led by PNG Minister for Community Development, Youth and Religion Loujaya Kouza, these inspiring women spoke about their priorities for the advancement of women in their fields as well as noting some important achievements. Bishop spoke of her desire to use Australia's political assets to promote economic empowerment for women, encourage leadership potential and address violence against women. 

Bishop's use of the term 'political assets' is notable.

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It speaks to Bishop's objectives to unite the aid program with foreign and trade policy priorities, to pursue broader economic development, and also to her appointment of Natasha Stott Despoja as Ambassador for Women and Girls.

Bishop's tribute to popular National Council of Women President Scholar Kakas, who passed away last week, at the beginning of the meeting was but one indication of the genuine empathy the Minister has with PNG women. She listened carefully to the comments of all the women before acknowledging and responding to their remarks and suggestions in a humble, almost Melanesian, manner.

Discussion focused on the usefulness of leadership and election training, financial literacy, micro-finance arrangements, assisting women with export-oriented businesses, building the next generation of women leaders in schools and universities, enabling connections between young leaders in Australia and PNG, gender-based violence, the importance of public defenders in the justice system, and the difficulties of helping women start businesses in rural area where there is little or no cash-based economic activity.

Despite the Minister's familiarity with Papua New Guinea, she may not have fully appreciated until yesterday the important role she plays as a role model for Papua New Guinea women. In response to a question seeking Bishop's advice on how she herself advanced in politics to become the Foreign Minister, Bishop joked that an answer would take three days, but then added that mentors were very valuable.

It is obviously not lost on PNG women that Julie Bishop is the only woman in the federal cabinet and that her rise to foreign minister and deputy leader of the Liberal Party is an achievement from which PNG women can draw lessons. 

Julie Bishop has a significant agenda as foreign minister. If she can keep PNG near the top of this agenda and ensure there is real substance to the new economic and strategic status of the bilateral partnership, this will be a major achievement. But her biggest achievement could be the influence she exerts to change the future for women in PNG. Bishop has an obvious love for the country that endears her to Papua New Guineans used to Australian ministers who have tended to prioritise the relationship with Papua New Guinea only when there was a problem. 

The trust she has built with PNG ministers will permit her to speak frankly about their responsibilities to create more opportunities for women and address gender violence; her empathy with senior PNG women will give her entrée and an interested audience; her appointment of Natasha Stott Despoja and the review of the aid program in PNG will enable her to enhance Australia's diplomatic and aid focus on women's equality.

Bishop herself is Australia's chief 'political asset' in PNG. She should focus on deploying herself as well as Australia's other political assets effectively in PNG.

Photo courtesy of the Foreign Minister's office.

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In what may be the clearest sign yet that Fiji Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama (pictured) intends to make good on his promise to hold elections in 2014, he has announced that he will resign as head of the military on 28 February and stand for election.

Bainimarama has promised that his political party, the details of which he will announce on 1 March, will deliver. He has that the party he forms will be standing on the record of delivering basic services.

While Fiji's new Electoral Act has yet to be enacted, four other parties have registered to participate in the elections, which are expected to take place in September. Many commentators believe Bainimarama is confident of electoral victory and hence made this most recent announcement. He told soldiers during a parade on Monday that it was important people chose their government representatives sensibly, and said voters should be wary of politicians who had their own agendas, implying that voting for him would be a wise choice.

In other countries that use a single national constituency and/or open list proportional representation voting system, which Fiji's new constitution endorsed, it is difficult for one party to win an absolute majority and coalition governments are the norm. Bainimarama has spent the last seven years governing on his own terms. Whether he has the negotiating and coalition-forming skills of an Angela Merkel or a Benjamin Netanyahu is yet to be seen.

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Bainimarama might take heart from this end of year survey by Gallup International. The results showed that 70% of Fijians thought 2014 will be better than 2013, 62% thought this year will be a year of economic prosperity and 88% personally felt happy about their lives. The survey was a universal one and did not test what Fijians thought about their prime minister but Bainimarama would be pleased that Fijians expressed so much confidence about their country in 2014 and would hope to convert this into votes for him and his party. By comparison, the same survey indicated that only 39% of Australians thought 2014 would be better than 2013; just 17% believed this year would be one of economic prosperity, while 32% predicted economic difficulty and 43% said it would be the same as 2013; and only 53% personally felt happy about their lives.

If Bainimarama follows through on his intentions, it creates a slight opening for Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop to pursue her promised change of course to Australia's Fiji policy. In opposition, Bishop said a Coalition government would prioritise the normalisation of relations with Fiji. As Minister she has been more circumspect in public about any major changes to Australia's Fiji policy. But Bishop did meet with Fiji Foreign Minister Kubuabola, and has conferred with New Zealand Foreign Minister McCully on the path ahead. She has signaled that confirmation of an election date would be significant in her thinking about future shifts in policy.

Interestingly, Bainimarama's official Twitter account announced yesterday that the Australian High Commission would be inviting him to attend Australia Day celebrations. His advisers clearly believe this to be something of a breakthrough, signaling that improving relations with Australia may be more important to Bainimarama than he has previously indicated.

It will be tempting for Canberra to proceed cautiously where Bainimarama is concerned and prior experience shows that such caution is warranted. But waiting until after the election to change course in Fiji policy risks a continuation of the high level bilateral impasse. Bainimarama, if he is to win government, may choose to punish Australia for its isolation of him since 2006. This could in turn create difficulties in Australia's relations with the region as an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama will seek to attract the early support of Pacific Island countries.

Early normalisation of relations is unlikely, but Bainimarama's decision to stand down allows Bishop to consider initiating a conversation with him about his plans for the election. Once Bainimarama is officially a candidate, the Foreign Minister could speak to all the leading candidates (even if only by telephone) about Australia's commitment to provide support for elections. While this work would normally best be done by diplomats, Australia needs to widen its political conversation with Fiji now if the Abbott Government intends to expand relations after the elections.

Image courtesy of Reuters/Tim Winbourne.

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Reviving a mid-December tradition established by former foreign minister Alexander Downer, Julie Bishop has just completed a three-day whirlwind trip to Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Nauru. As a backbencher, Bishop was part of Downer's delegation in December 2002*, and just as Downer did, Bishop invited a multi-party delegation to accompany her. She even returned to two of the three countries that were part of her 2002 visit.

Bishop's group included not only Parliamentary Secretary Brett Mason but also Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Tanya Plibersek and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration Matt Thistlethwaite, as well as her freshly appointed Ambassador for Women and Girls Natasha Stott Despoja. Taking a relatively high powered group like this on her first visit was an indication of the importance Bishop attaches to Australia's relations with the Pacific Islands region.

Such visits are usually lined with a tidy set of 'announceables'. Tweaks are made to the existing aid program to enable new projects or phases of programs to be announced, and public meetings are held with aid recipients. There is usually ample material for local media coverage but little in the way of real strategic interest.

But as this was Bishop's first visit to the region as Minister, the aid announcements she made will give some pointers on the Australian government's overall priorities in the region.

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In Solomon Islands, the Minister said her visit was an opportunity to set the foundations for a stronger economic and strategic bilateral partnership, in a similar vein to the reset she signaled for Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea in the 11 December PNG-Australia Ministerial Forum.

Bishop also followed through on her commitment to increase support for private sector growth by announcing Australia would spend $15 million over five years to the Pacific Business Fund to provide business advisory services to over 250 companies in the Pacific and improved economic opportunities for women through additional support to the Private Sector Development Initiative. She also talked about a $5 million gender program to address family violence, reflecting her commitment to women in the Pacific.

The big announcement Bishop promised for Vanuatu was a $37 million aid package for the second phase of major upgrades to about 350km of roads. It is not immediately clear whether this is new money or a re-statement or realignment of existing commitments.

The previous government's 2013-14 aid budget for Vanuatu committed to supporting critical nation-building infrastructure projects, including further rehabilitation of rural road networks. DFAT's own account of aid program results to June 2013 record that as a result of a $29 million transport sector support program, 171.4km of priority roads were upgraded from 2010 to 2012, generating 101,588 days of work and improving access to health centres, schools and markets for up to 40,000 people. An additional $31 million urban development project with the Asian Development Bank is upgrading Port Vila's road network.

But regardless of whether this really is a new program, Bishop's decision to announce support for infrastructure during her visit is significant.

Bishop spoke during the election campaign about her desire to see Australia recognised as the 'partner of choice' for Pacific Island countries. Although Australia supports infrastructure development in many countries, it is China which is more readily recognised as the Pacific's main partner in this field. Chinese loans are also supporting road development in Vanuatu. 

The Minister emphasised while she was in Vanuatu that Australia was the 'most significant aid donor in the region by a long way' and would continue to be so. Her message was clear: Australia wants to be recognised as the most significant partner for the Pacific and understands infrastructure development and maintenance is a priority for the countries of the region. Although more likely aimed at Pacific Island governments, coming just a month after China's own announcement of more loans for Pacific infrastructure, Canberra may be hoping Beijing takes note of Bishop's message.

Bishop has created a good precedent by taking a high level delegation to the region and focusing on gender as well as private sector development and infrastructure.

If this is to be an annual tradition, the Foreign Minister could improve on it by changing the timing of the visit next year. Conducting an annual whistle-stop tour in December not only creates problems for Pacific Island governments winding down for the Christmas break, it suggests the region is something of an afterthought at the end of a busy year. To better reflect the Minister's obvious commitment to the region, creating a new precedent of visiting earlier in the year would be a welcome development.

* Disclosure: I was the DFAT officer assisting the parliamentary delegation accompanying Downer.

Image courtesy of DFAT.

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While the Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship is currently strong, we need only look at the Indonesia spy scandal to understand how vulnerable Australia’s official relationships in the neighbourhood are to shocks.

The Australia-PNG relationship went through its own difficulties during the era that John Howard and Sir Michael Somare were in power. It is during such times that people-to-people and business relationships come to the fore, helping to alleviate the damage of official rows.

Earlier this week, the Lowy Institute convened the inaugural Australia-Papua New Guinea Emerging Leaders Dialogue. It brought together young leaders from business, civil society, government and the media in an effort to improve people-to-people links between the two neighbours. The group shared experiences in areas ranging from growing the economy and attracting investment to the impact of social media on political accountability. A summary of the outcomes can be found at this link.

Dialogues such as these, particularly if they are convened regularly, can help expand people-to-people links if the participants continue to engage with each other and drive new initiatives forward. There are already a number of close business and non-government ties between Australia and Papua New Guinea so it’s important that new initiatives build on and not replicate existing activities.

The discussion at the Dialogue revealed that Australia and PNG have a lot more in common that might be obvious to the casual observer, including in the ways our economies are structured, difficulties in distributing the benefits of the resources boom and our approaches to engaging with new investors from Asia.

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The development of infrastructure to meet growing populations and private sector demand is important in both countries. Even though our health and education systems are vastly different, Australia faces similar challenges to PNG in delivering health and education services to remote indigenous communities. Young people in both Australia and Papua New Guinea are frustrated with the political system but finding other ways, including through social media, to get involved in policy discussions.

Some of the most interesting recommendations were around initiatives to improve perceptions of PNG in Australia. The participants had innovative ideas about using film, television and children’s literature as well as professional journalism exchanges to help Australians gain a better understanding of their nearest neighbour.

Concluding the inaugural Dialogue, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop delivered a great account of her own longstanding personal interest in Papua New Guinea and her confidence that improved links between young people would further enhance Australia’s relations with PNG. She foreshadowed a visit from Papua New Guinea ministers to Australia for the annual Ministerial Forum in December and her own visit to Papua New Guinea.

So far Bishop has maintained the passion for Papua New Guinea we have seen from her previous visits to the Lowy Institute, which bodes well for the bilateral relationship.

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The ABC’s flagship current affairs program, Four Corners, last night investigated corruption in Papua New Guinea. In Preying on Paradise, journalist Marian Wilkinson looked at the extent of corruption in our nearest neighbour.

This kind of report is long overdue in Papua New Guinea. A focus from serious investigative journalists on the cancer of government corruption could help galvanise action. It is particularly important at a time when the PNG Government has just nationalised the PNG Sustainable Development Fund and the Ok Tedi mine, raising questions about the use of the mine’s revenue.

Four Corners' report did not break any news for Papua New Guineans, who are well acquainted with the sensational tales of corruption that have emerged in the last few years. But it painted a very sorry picture of the scale of corrupt practices in Papua New Guinea and gaps in accountability for those responsible.

The program suggested that Australia was reluctant to help PNG authorities deal with the problem. Sam Koim, the chair of the PNG Government’s Task Force Sweep, claimed Australia was a safe harbour for the proceeds of crime from Papua New Guinea. Koim had previously raised serious concerns about Australian being the 'Cayman Islands' for Papua New Guineans looking to hide their ill-gotten gains during a speech at a conference in Sydney last year.

But are suggestions of Australian complacency about corruption in PNG fair?

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The Australian Federal Police has deployed two senior AFP officers to the PNG Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate this year. The Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department is working with AUSTRAC to investigate specific allegations about PNG corruption. The Australian Government is working with the PNG Proceeds of Crime Unit in the Public Prosecutor’s Office to assist it to pursue the proceeds of corruption and with the Department of Justice and Attorney General to review the PNG Proceeds of Crime Act.

The perception created by Four Corners’ interviews with Sam Koim and PNG Transparency International Chairman Lawrence Stephens, however, is that Australian authorities are complacent about corruption and uninterested in helping PNG authorities address it. And no Australian officials were available to rebut these claims. They declined to be interviewed on camera by Four Corners but AUSTRAC, the Australian Federal Police and the Attorney General’s Department prepared a joint statement in response to questions, posted on the ABC website.

Four Corners is beamed into Papua New Guinea at the same time it is broadcast in Australia. The majority of PNG viewers are unlikely to follow up by reading supplementary documents on the website. Leaving viewers with the strong impression that Australian authorities are lax about addressing money laundering or other expenditure of the proceeds of crime in Australia not only hurts Australia’s reputation, it diverts attention from the real issue – the criminal activity that has taken place in PNG.

Even if Australian authorities are able to prevent all attempts to invest or launder the proceeds of crime in Australia, the Papua New Guineans responsible for these crimes will simply find other destinations for their funds. Australian actions will not, ultimately, serve to deter individuals from being corrupt. At best, they might succeed in reducing the options available to criminals.

Reviving the decades-old tradition of blaming Australia for PNG’s ills is all too easy when Australian authorities do not speak up.

The Four Corners program suggested the Australian Government would be reluctant to be critical of PNG politicians, given it is dependent on Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s help to solve the asylum seeker problem through the Manus processing centre.  This is very likely to be true of ministers such as Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison, who need a good relationship with O’Neill and his ministers. But it should not preclude Australian officials from talking about Australian policy, particularly when Australian assistance in this field is provided at the request of the PNG Government.

The Australian Attorney-General’s Department should address the criticism up front. Departmental Secretary Roger Wilkins and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus should plan a joint visit to Papua New Guinea in the next couple of months. There is enough other bilateral business with Papua New Guinea for them to justify a visit. While they are in Port Moresby, they should hold a joint press conference with Sam Koim and the PNG Police Commissioner, appear on PNG’s EMTV, national radio and engage in social media discussions alongside their PNG counterparts.

They should explain Australia’s anti-money-laundering framework and due diligence requirements, detail the kind of assistance provided to PNG and the scale of joint activities. They should also outline the kind of evidence required before Australian authorities can act on allegations of money laundering or other use of the proceeds of crime in Australia.

They cannot of course comment on individual cases to feed a hungry media. But a concerted public outreach effort would show support for the PNG Government’s anti-corruption efforts and help Papua New Guineans understand how they can hold their corrupt politicians and officials to account for their attempts to hide the proceeds of crime in Australia. It is unlikely Prime Minister O'Neill would object, and it would not do the new Australian Government any harm either.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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In the midst of the debate about the gender deficit in the new Abbott cabinet, we risk failing to recognise a milestone for Australia. Australia’s first female governor-general is swearing in Julie Bishop as our first female foreign minister today.

As Annabel Crabb argues, Bishop is not a token woman in the woefully women-deprived federal cabinet. She has earned her position as the nation’s top diplomat and deserves recognition for this achievement.

Bishop worked hard as shadow minister to get across her brief. I give her particular credit because she has taken a deep interest in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands, travelled to the region many times and has said the relationship with PNG should be one of Australia's highest foreign policy priorities.

However, the prime minister’s decision that Bishop will be the sole woman in his cabinet creates some immediate difficulties for Bishop in prosecuting Australian policy in the Pacific Islands region.

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Our neighbourhood bears the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest representation of women in parliament in the world. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women make up just 4.2% of the region’s parliaments (excluding Australia and New Zealand). In three countries in the region there are no women in parliament. The world average is 20.9%.

Australia has been a strong advocate for better female representation in Pacific parliaments. Former prime minister Julia Gillard launched a 10-year, $320 million initiative to help improve political, economic and social opportunities for Pacific women in August 2012. This initiative is meant to support the development of improved opportunities for women to enter parliaments in the region. The Abbott Government’s pre-election foreign policy statement included a commitment to engage with female leaders in our region through establishing a second-tier dialogue of prominent women and establishing networks of mentors to work with younger female leaders.

The poor representation of women in the new Australian cabinet and wider ministry diminishes Australia’s capacity for advocacy in these important initiatives. Prime Minister Abbott’s lacklustre reasoning for not promoting more women to his ministry ('I’m disappointed there are not at least two women in Cabinet. Nevertheless there are some very good and talented women knocking on the door of the cabinet and there are lots of good and talented women knocking on the door of the ministry. I think you can expect to see, as time goes by, more women in both the Cabinet and the ministry’) creates headaches for Bishop not just at home but also in the Pacific. It will give unintended succour to the many senior male politicians in Pacific Island countries who lack commitment to improving opportunities for women to enter parliament, and makes it more difficult to encourage reform.

But the upside is that the advocate-in-chief for Australia’s commitment to assisting the advancement of women in the Pacific will be Australia’s first female foreign minister. Bishop’s success in a party and now a government where the path for the promotion of women is far from easy may hold some useful lessons for women struggling with glass ceilings in the region. As foreign minister, Bishop will travel to the region frequently (more often than former prime minister Gillard) and can demonstrate by example the value of women in senior cabinet positions.

While we should celebrate the national milestone that Julie Bishop is achieving today, it is worth reflecting on where we stand globally.  This link shows a surprisingly large number of female foreign ministers over the last 70 years. Even more surprising is that they are not just from North America and northern Europe. The strongest representation in the list is from developing countries. Perhaps we are not as advanced as we like to think.

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Establishing good relations with our nearest neighbour should be a priority for any incoming Australian government. Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott has already done the right thing and telephoned Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill (pictured) just days after his election victory. Although Mr Abbott may have been motivated by the asylum seekers issue, he did talk about strengthening bilateral relations, which is a good start.

If the experience of Opposition is any guide, however, it seems likely that Foreign Minister-designate Julie Bishop will do the heavy lifting on Australia's relations with PNG. Bishop's first trip overseas as foreign minister is likely to take in Papua New Guinea.

As shadow minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop distinguished herself by her focus on Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea and by her understanding of Australia's nearest neighbour. She visited PNG twice and participated in several meetings of the Australian and PNG business communities. She is on the record as saying the relationship with PNG should be one of the Australian government's highest foreign policy priorities.

Bishop has also engaged with Papua New Guineans on social media, whether by responding to questions from Papua New Guineans on Twitter or crowd-sourcing foreign policy ideas and feedback on blogs.

She did all of this before the Rudd Government's controversial Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG or her own party's announcement of substantial aid cuts just prior to the election. Both of these policies make her job more difficult. Nevertheless, Julie Bishop has every reason to expect her first visit to PNG to be friendly and productive. Making a good impression as minister and distinguishing herself from the previous Australian Government will be important. She should focus on five main tasks in her first visit:

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  1. Reaffirming to the O'Neill Government the priority she attaches to broadening and deepening the relationship.
  2. Reassuring the PNG Government and people that effective aid remains a priority for Australia that will not be affected by projected cuts to aid.
  3. Reaching out to PNG's emerging youthful, informed and increasingly influential middle class, perhaps in an address at the University of PNG.
  4. Connecting with the Australia-PNG business community, using her links with the Australia-PNG Business Council and PNG companies.
  5. Meeting and listening to women working in civil society organisations, health, education, agriculture and government, both in Port Moresby and a provincial centre (Lae, Goroka or Mount Hagen).

Bishop has already outlined ideas for broadening and deepening the relationship. It's time now to engage in a bigger conversation with Peter O'Neill's government and the PNG people about that. Cooperating to make the most of new opportunities emerging from the rise of Asian economies could be one priority.

Quarantining the now largest recipient of Australian aid from the $656 million in savings which have to be found in this financial year will be difficult, but there are very good reasons to do just that. Apart from national interest reasons for giving aid to PNG, 40% of Papua New Guinea's 7 million people live in poverty and aid helps them access better health and education services.

Governments tend to concentrate on relationships with partner governments in the conduct of foreign affairs. Australia's relationship with PNG should be an exception to this rule. By building on her good relationship with the Australia-PNG business community and reaching out to a young and politically engaged middle class on a regular basis, she will add ballast to the relationship. If both these communities feel they have the attention of the Australian foreign minister, there will be much deeper trust in PNG that Australia is its 'partner of choice', helping to protect the relationship from the political shocks that have harmed it in the past.

The Coalition's foreign policy election statement says the Abbott Government will engage with female leaders in our region through a second-tier dialogue of prominent women and by establishing networks of mentors to work with younger female leaders. Women in Papua New Guinea face very serious challenges but they are certainly capable of telling Australia's first female foreign minister what their priorities are and how she can help them. Bishop has an opportunity, like Julia Gillard before her, to be a champion for PNG women. If she is serious about resetting our relationship with PNG, she should seize it.

While the foreign minister should manage bilateral relations, the depth of the relationship demands that other Australian ministers administer their portfolio interests in PNG too. The disaffection of the population of Manus and local businesses around the implementation of the Regional Resettlement Arrangement has the potential to be an early irritant for the Abbott Government's relations with PNG, even if Prime Minister O'Neill ignores it. An early visit by the new minister for immigration, which includes meetings with the people and business community of Manus, would help.

Unusually for an incoming Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop has a genuine and informed interest in PNG. Her familiarity with PNG, the contacts she has established and her instincts augur well for a successful broadening and deepening of bilateral relations.

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The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders' summit wrapped up in Majuro yesterday with few surprises. Highlights included the adoption of the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership and discussion on the importance of renewing regionalism. Fiji remains suspended from the Forum.

The bizarre decision by host the Marshall Islands and the Forum to convene the summit in the same week as the G20 leaders' summit and during the election campaign of its biggest and most influential member, Australia, guaranteed it would struggle to capture international attention.

This is important because the host government's ambition is for the Majuro Declaration to generate a 'new wave of climate leadership' that accelerates the reduction of carbon emissions. The Marshall Islands President will present the Declaration to the UN Secretary General later this month. But the initiative would have benefited both from international media attention (denied by the focus on the G20 summit) and from Australia taking a leadership role in championing it (denied by the Australian election campaign).

The Australian Government's decision to send Minister for Mental Health and Ageing Senator Jacinta Collins, who has no Pacific experience, to represent the Prime Minister was a clear signal that Australia would not be saying much at this Forum. Given the likelihood that Canberra's perspective on climate change will be quite different next week, the Forum might find itself in the awkward position of needing to convince its most influential member of the merits of its major 2013 resolution.

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In predictable language on Fiji, leaders noted the progress Fiji was making towards holding national elections, and welcomed the new constitution. They looked forward to revisiting Fiji's suspension from the Forum next year.

Leaders missed an opportunity here. They could have agreed to telegraph that they would convene their summit in Palau after the September 2014 Fiji elections so as to invite the newly elected Fiji leader to participate as a guest if the conduct of the elections was satisfactory. As it is, Fiji is unlikely to be invited back until 2015.

But the safe route might have been the right one as it is by no means certain that Fiji even wants to return to the fold of the Forum or would see an invitation as any sort of incentive. If Commodore Bainimarama is the prime minister following the elections, which seems likely, he may decline an invitation to return or may seek to impose his own terms for the Fiji's return.

Former PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta, chair of the Pacific Plan review, delivered some hard-hitting messages on the need for leaders to step up and act collectively for the 'betterment of the region and its peoples' with a 'New Framework for Pacific Integration'. In language that must have seemed startling to some leaders, Morauta told them regionalism had lost its political direction and said the solution lay in re-establishing a 'robust political process around regionalism' as opposed to a 'technocratic shopping list' of priorities. This would mean significant reform of the PIF and its Secretariat and political intervention to ensure the credibility of the New Framework through visible wins from regional integration.

Leaders welcomed Morauta's preliminary findings, but as the final report of the review will not be complete until October 2013, they tasked the Forum Officials Committee to report to them on the Review in a Special Leaders' Retreat six months later. The review's eventual recommendations have the potential to pose a real test for Forum leaders, who are practised at making noble statements in communiqués but less skilled as a group at directing and staying the course in the implementation of reform.

On the tenth anniversary of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands, leaders recognised the transition of the mission to a policing one and the shift of development initiatives back to bilateral programs. Leaders also supported the Marshall Islands in its efforts to engage the US towards a justified resolution of America's nuclear testing program. Marshall Islands will consider submitting a letter to the US Government urging the US to take action to 'meaningfully address the ongoing impacts resulting from the US nuclear testing program' and make representations to the UN Secretary General.

After suspending consideration of new Post-Forum Dialogue partners for many years, leaders this year agreed to admit Cuba as a Dialogue partner, perhaps in acknowledgement of increased Cuban development assistance in the health sector.

I argued last week that this summit offered an opportunity for PNG's Prime Minister to claim the regional leadership mantle. He did a fair job of making good on this, announcing what he called a substantial aid program to the Pacific region. PNG is providing new aid to Tuvalu (US$2 million), Tonga and the Marshall Islands, in addition to the US$20.8 million for Fiji's elections and disaster aid to Samoa already announced. O'Neill committed to being an active member of the region.

The outcomes of this Pacific Islands Forum – most importantly the Majuro Declaration initiative, a (postponed) new commitment to regional integration, and a stepping up by PNG – have the potential to be substantial. But if the Forum is to avoid perceptions of a slide towards irrelevancy, its leaders now need to lead and personally champion reform and advocacy. Turning responsibilities over to the region's technocrats between leadership forums will no longer cut it.

Photo by Flickr user Christopher.Michel.

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Election Interpreter 2013

The Liberal-National Coalition's decision to cut growth in foreign aid spending by $4.5 billion over the forward estimates has created a last-minute election debate about Australia's foreign aid commitments. Foreign Minister Bob Carr is yet to announce (at time of writing) the details of the Labor Party's foreign aid policy.*

Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey said Australia can only be a more generous donor if it grows the Australian economy first. He was critical of the Labor Government for borrowing to maintain our foreign aid commitments and for reneging on promised commitments on an annual basis. Hockey said the Coalition remained committed to the Millennium Goal of increasing aid spending to 0.5% of gross national income but could not commit to a date Australia would reach that target.

This should not have come as a surprise. Back in 2011 Hockey was critical of the growth in Australian aid even while the Coalition maintained the bipartisan commitment to the 0.5% target.

Before calling the election, the Rudd Government had cautioned that it would defer the promised increase to the foreign aid budget of 0.5% of gross national income back to 2017-2018. As Stephen Howes points out, this was the fifth time the Government has pushed back the target since it was announced in 2008.

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The 2013-14 budget set out the Australian Government's intentions for aid spending but development experts have been sceptical that Australia would meet the ambitious commitment. The target was announced by Prime Minister Rudd in more favourable domestic economic circumstances and was back-end-loaded from the outset. Small increases so far mean that an unprecedented ramp up in foreign aid spending (see graph in this post by Stephen Howes) would be required to meet the target. There are good reasons to question Australia's capacity to manage such a dramatic ramp up in spending and maintain the integrity and efficiency of the aid program.

The Coalition's new direction separates Australian aid policy from its conservative counterparts in the UK, where Prime Minister Cameron has continued to increase Britain's aid budget despite adverse domestic economic circumstances. This does not help Australia's interest in being recognised as one of the world's leading aid donors. And as Annmaree O'Keeffe suggested last year, weakening our aid commitment means weakening one of the most significant soft power tools Australia has to address threats to regional stability.

On a positive note, if the Coalition is elected to government on Saturday this policy would at least introduce more predictability in the forward estimates for the aid program than we have seen over the last few years, which is useful for our aid partners.

But have both the Government and the Opposition misjudged the public sentiment on aid? The 2011 Lowy Institute poll found that on average, Australians wanted 12% of the federal budget spent on foreign aid. Even with recent increases, aid only represents around 1% of the budget. It would seem that there is popular support for a bigger aid budget.

* Clarification (6/9/13, 11.50): Minister for International Development Melissa Parke has published an election statement of sorts through the DevPolicy blog.

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The 2013 Pacific Islands Forum starts today and the host, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, wants climate change to be the major focus, naming the theme of the leaders' summit as 'Marshalling the Pacific Response to the Climate Challenge'. As Marshall Islands Senator Tony de Brum explains in the video interview I recorded with him in July (above), the Marshall Islands wants the Forum to produce the Majuro Declaration, meant to inspire a new wave of action on climate change, the principal security threat to the region.

This is a worthy ambition for the tiny Marshall Islands (pop 68,000), which feels the effects of climate change keenly. But it has struck some bad luck with timing. Capturing the world's attention is likely to be much more difficult than the Forum's leaders found in the last two years. Last year's summit in the Cook Islands attracted international interest because US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took part, feeding speculation that the US was anxious about the rise of China's influence in the Pacific. The 2011 summit in Auckland drew UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and EU President Barroso.

But the coincidence of the timing of the Pacific Islands Forum with the G20 Summit in St Petersburg means the Marshall Islands is unlikely to attract high profile international leaders to Majuro. The pre-occupation of the world's major powers with the situation in Syria won't help either.

Even the Australian prime minister will be sending his regrets because of the 7 September federal election. Although Australia will still be represented by a minister, the caretaker conventions of the campaign period mean Australia's voice at the summit will be more restrained than usual.

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One matter the Australian head of delegation will promote, however, is Australia's hosting of the G20 leaders' summit in Brisbane next year. It is the privilege of the G20 host to invite observers, which may allow one or more Pacific Island countries to attend the summit and permit Australia to advocate for issues that are important to the Pacific.

The Forum has succeeded in at least capturing the attention of the European Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, who will go to Majuro. She believes the Pacific Islands Forum can remind the world that it must get its act together and refocus on urgent actions.

The Forum might be more effective in global advocacy if it had its own house in order. As Sandra Tarte's post pointed out, the region's leaders will be presented with evidence from the recently completed review of the Pacific Plan.  The take-out from the review is that the Pacific Islands Forum has become separated from its raison d’étre – its political leadership – and Forum leaders themselves have failed to reflect the political will of their people onto the regional agenda. The Review found that the Forum tends to work on issues for which it can attract donor funding rather than issues that are important to the region's political leaders or the people of the region.

Chair of the Review Team Sir Mekere Morauta cautioned that rising inequality, poverty and difficulties adjusting to the various facets of modernity were particular challenges that the region's institutions needed to tackle, implying that the Forum's response to these issues was inadequate.

These issues don't easily lend themselves to the neat action plans for the region's civil servants of the kind the Forum's communiques have favoured in the past. It is not easy to build an advocacy campaign around them in the way one has been built around the existential threat of climate change. But these challenges are every bit as serious as climate change and arguably are having a bigger impact on hundreds of thousands of Pacific Islanders.

The region's premier institution is at risk of becoming an anachronism if it fails to inspire the political will to respond to a rapidly changing social, economic and political context.

The proposed Majuro Declaration will rightly demand more action from big countries on reducing carbon emissions. But action on the other serious challenges facing the Pacific islands demands the urgent attention of the region itself. Whether the Forum continues to stumble or again becomes the region's agenda setter depends entirely on the vision and commitment of its leaders.

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