Lowy Institute

Pacific Islands Forum leaders met in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea last week. The meeting was highly anticipated for a few reasons. It is the first Forum hosted by PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, who has clear regional leadership ambitions. PNG is celebrating 40 years of independence from Australia this week and hosted the Pacific Games in July. It is also preparing to host APEC in 2018, and needed to demonstrate its credentials in hosting regional meetings.

Leaders at the 46th Pacific Islands Forum, Post Moresby, Papua New Guinea (Facebook/Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat)

It was the first time the Fiji Government has been invited to attend the leaders’ summit since Fiji was suspended from the Forum in 2009. The now elected Prime Minister Bainimarama followed through on his promise to boycott the meeting, but was represented by his Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola.

The meeting was billed as an opportunity for Forum leaders to seek a common position to take to COP21 negotiations in Paris – 'seek' being the operative word.

In a break from past procedures and under the stewardship of new Pacific Islands Forum Secretary-General Dame Meg Taylor, leaders had five priority issues on their agenda instead of the usual 35 or so they have previously been expected to discuss. Derived in part from public consulations, these issues were: fisheries and maritime surveillance, climate change and disaster risk management, West Papua, information and communications technology and cervical cancer.

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Anyone expecting more succinct outcomes from a focus on five rather than 35 issues, however, would have been disappointed. The meeting produced a 41 paragraph communiqué and two annexes: an 11 paragraph Declaration  on Climate Change Action and a 21 paragraph Hiri Declaration, 'Strengthening connections to enhance Pacific regionalism'.

The reporting of the summit focused on the split between Australia/New Zealand and the island states on climate change. Neither Tony Abbott nor John Key agreed to the island states' demand for a position that would restrict global warming to 1.5 C°. This enabled leaders such as the Kiribati President Anote Tong and the Marshall Islands’ Foreign Minister Tony de Brum to join Fiji’s Prime Minister in portraying Australia and New Zealand as out of step with the region. Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who made an insensitive joke about Pacific islands affected by climate change last Friday, reinforced that notion.

But there was much more to the discussion on climate change than reaching agreement on the temperature goal, which in itself offers no guarantees for a global agreement in Paris. The leaders did reach agreement on a number of significant issues that they would seek for inclusion in the outcome of the Paris negotiations. The language in the Declaration on Climate Change Action was as good as it could be given the attitudes of Australia and New Zealand, and presents a number of common substantial arguments Forum members can take to Paris. But the acrimony that spilled out from the Forum and Peter Dutton’s damaging intervention have already overshadowed the positive outcomes, and may constrain any further united action. 

The inability of the leaders to communicate effectively the totality of their position on climate change also obscured the fact that they botched discussion on three of the five issues on which they should have reached decisions.

On cervical cancer, leaders 'noted the substantial burden that cervical cancer places on women and girls in the Pacific region as well as the insufficient response to address it across the region' and put off any action until there was 'further consultation' with relevant authorities. Cervical cancer is one the most preventable cancers, yet kills nearly twice as many women in Melanesia as in Australia and New Zealand. For a disease that can be prevented in many cases by a vaccine and regular screening, this was a poor effort by the Forum.

The Pacific Islands region lags behind the rest of the world in access to and use of information and communication technology (ICT), which puts island states at further economic disadvantage in a world increasingly dependent on connectivity. Regional cooperation in this sector could deliver increased access and savings and more importantly education and employment opportunities for young people. All leaders could agree on, however, was asking the Forum Secretariat and USP to 'consider the merit of a regional ICT Advisory Council.'  In a statement Sir Humphrey Appleby would be proud of, leaders instructed that such a Council (which may not ever even exist) 'must deliver real deliverables.'  

Forum leaders noted concerns about human rights in West Papua, but appeared to defer to PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill who has developed a strategy for dealing with the situation and wants to manage it himself.

On fisheries and maritime surveillance, leaders were bolder. They agreed that a joint task force of regional agencies with fishery responsibilities should lead a program to increase sustainable economic returns, and tasked ministers to evaluate regional monitoring, surveillance and compliance, with an emphasis on sharing technology. While not yet an outcome to celebrate, the value of fisheries to all island states cannot be underestimated and better regional cooperation could have real benefits.

Public divisions on climate change hurt all members of the Pacific Islands Forum. Island states need to work harder to have their voice heard internationally, and the reputation of Australia and New Zealand in the region is impaired. Just as troubling, though, these divisions obscure and jeopardise coordinated action on many other significant challenges the region faces. Leaders would better serve their people and build confidence in the region by acting cooperatively and decisively on issues they do agree on, rather than emphasising their differences.

  • John Garnaut continued his commentary on PNG's looming fiscal crisis, while Liam Cochrane revealed some questionable expenditure items in the recent Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.
  • The PNG Advantage investment summit will take place on 27 and 28 August.
  • Journalist Ellen Whinnett documents the week-long journey of five federal Australian MPs (3 Labor and 2 Coalition) to rural PNG.
  • James Batley at ANU takes a look at PNG's budding aid program, showing that 'aid is now a significant feature of its regional diplomacy'.
  • Terence Wood has painstakingly compiled a database of almost 50 years of Solomon Islands election results.
  • Up to 60 people face sedition charges in three separate cases in Fiji as Prime Minister Bainimarama vows to 'crush' possible insurrection.
  • On a more cheerful note, the National Gallery of Australia has launched its 'Myth and Magic – art of the Sepik River, PNG' exhibit in Canberra. It closes 1 November and is not to be missed. 
  • The Centre for Global Development's Owen Barder previews the Third International Conference on Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa this week.
  • With negotiations well underway for the post-2015 development goals, how did the Millennium Development Goals fare? The 2015 UN MDG Report was released last week. Link to the full report and other press releases here.
  • IMF President Christine Lagarde announced that the IMF will expand access to its concessional facilities by 50%. It will also focus concessional resources more on the poorest and most vulnerable countries.
  • Pacific Islands Forum foreign ministers have emphasised the importance of local leadership in responses to natural disasters. In their meeting in Sydney on 10 July, they called on international partners, regional organisations, the private sector and civil society organisations to support processes led by Pacific Island governments for disaster-related assistance.
  • Impact investing is growing rapidly. Oxfam's Erinch Sahan analyses its appeal, the importance of ownership and the role of aid.
  • Brookings Nonresident Fellow Yun Sen argues China cannot ignore the voices of African countries as it gradually reforms its foreign aid policies.

Pacific Islands Forum foreign ministers are meeting in Sydney this week but may struggle for the spotlight as regional attention is focused on the Pacific Games, being hosted by Papua New Guinea. Port Moresby hosted a stunning opening ceremony on 4 July. It was one of several events this year which the Papua New Guinea Government and in particular Prime Minister Peter O'Neill will use to project the country's growing prominence in the region. Papua New Guinea will also host the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' Summit in September along with celebrations on the occasion of 40 years of independence from Australia.

Prime Minister O'Neill sought to inspire the region in his address at the opening ceremony of the Games, saying the event would bring strong bonds between people, teams and nations. He promised that the world-class facilities PNG had built for the Games would benefit the region for 'generations to come' and said with 'global economic growth centred on our part of the world' it was a 'great time to live in the Pacific'.

In the lead-up to the Games, O'Neill has been busy bolstering his regional leadership credentials. At the biennial Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) Leaders' summit in Honiara on 25 June, O'Neill brokered the admission of Indonesia as an Associate member of the Group, 'representing the five Melanesian Provinces in Indonesia'.

The United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) had applied for membership too, an initiative supported by civil society groups across Melanesia. West Papuan hopes of securing full membership had been high following an impassioned speech by the MSG summit host and new chair, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. But it was O'Neill's formulation which won the day, and the ULMWP was instead accorded the status of an 'Observer member representing Melanesians living abroad.' O'Neill's position is that there is no collective voice among the West Papuan political movements so it is not appropriate for a group that is not elected to represent West Papua at the sub-regional level.

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O'Neill broke news of this decision via a Facebook post before the MSG leaders addressed a press conference or released their communiqué in Honiara. This was important. That he made his announcement separately and not in concert with the other leaders suggests he wanted to demonstrate his own role in brokering the outcome. Given that so much of the advocacy for the West Papuan cause is now conducted via social media channels (including in Papua New Guinea), announcing the MSG's decision on Facebook also helped O'Neill show he is in touch with his constituency.

O'Neill had already promised Papua New Guinea's support for Indonesia's associate membership during President Joko Widodo's visit to Port Moresby on 11-12 May. He followed up by announcing the proposal at the Pacific Leaders' Meeting in Japan on 22-23 May. O'Neill made it clear in Japan that Pacific Island countries had to deal with the Indonesian President and elected leaders of the Indonesian provinces with Melanesian populations if they wanted to see social conditions for West Papuans improve. He also set a tone for his expectations about how Pacific Island countries should deal with 'issues such as climate change, asylum seekers, West Papua' and their interactions with each other, stressing that 'playing emotional politics through the media is not the way to manage international issues in the modern world.'

Papua New Guinea has further promoted its leadership through a series of bilateral initiatives in the region. Prime Minister O'Neill wants to bestow the region's elder statesman, long-serving Samoan Prime Minister Tuilaepa, with PNG's highest award, the Order of Logohu, during the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' Meeting. Papua New Guinea provided disaster relief to Vanuatu following Cyclone Pam in April, including a $2.5 million aid package and an assessment team. The Papua New Guinea Government is delivering a 5-year development assistance program worth about $49 million to Solomon Islands.

Most of the credit for Papua New Guinea's new leadership role in the region should go to Prime Minister O'Neill. He has made a number of important speeches and interventions in 2015 both at home and abroad that are clearly focused on building and securing recognition of PNG's reputation as a regional leader and projecting his views on how PNG and its Pacific neighbours should interact on the global stage.

PNG is by far the largest Pacific Island nation in terms of population size, GDP and land size, and arguably more deserving of recognition as a regional leader than Fiji, which has historically played that role. But PNG's national development challenges are so much more significant in scale than those faced by any other island nation in the region. It is far from guaranteed that the Prime Minister can rely on support from his ministers, government agencies and the public, all of whom are necessarily more focused on domestic priorities, to reinforce his regional leadership ambitions.

  • Following a successful no-confidence motion in Vanuatu Prime Minister Joe Natuman, Sato Kilman was elected the new PM, his third turn in that office.  But another former Prime Minister, Edward Natapei, has lodged another motion of no confidence and has restarted a debate about changing the constitution to guarantee more political stability.  
  • Conclusions of the first Fiji-EU high-level talks since the return to democracy. 
  • Training and collaboration are the keys to the success of the US Navy's Pacific Partnership, now in Fiji.
  • Results from the 2015 Lowy Institute Poll show Australians seem to have a strong sense of obligation to Papua New Guinea and some understanding of its importance to Australia. 
  • In her 11 June speech to the Lowy Institute, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop emphasised the Pacific  Islands region as the priority for Australian aid, and where Australia has a 'particular responsibility to promote stability and prosperity'. 
  • In a 15 June speech Julie Bishop launched DFAT's Health for Development Strategy and paid special tribute to the collaborative work the Burnet Institute has undertaken in PNG. 
  • The 2015 PNG Update, organised by the ANU's Development Policy Centre and UPNG's School of Business Administration, will be convened at UPNG on 18 and 19 June. The focus is on development challenges in the LNG era. 
  • Coverage of re-elected Autonomous Bougainville Government President John Momis' first speech:


Papua New Guinea has reacted to Australia's recent decision to establish a diplomatic post in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville by banning Australian travel to the province. This spat is proving to be an irritant not only for the friendly relationship between Canberra and Port Moresby, but also for relations between Port Moresby and government authorities in Bougainville.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's arrival in Papua New Guinea, November 2014. (DFAT)

Australia's aid spend in Bougainville is $50 million next financial year – larger than Australian aid programs in Samoa, Tonga or Kiribati. Establishing an office to administer a program of this size is understandable. It is perhaps surprising Australia has not sought to establish a consulate either in Bougainville or another location in Papua New Guinea before now, given the quantum of Australian interests in our nearest neighbour. For its part, Papua New Guinea maintains three consulates in Australia — in Sydney, Brisbane and Cairns — in addition to its High Commission in Canberra.

The Papua New Guinea Government has interpreted the Australian decision as a threat to its sovereignty, but it is unclear whether Port Moresby really believes this or was upset by what it called 'a lack of consultation' on the matter.

The Australian Government would be foolish if it failed to consider the consequences of a 'yes' vote for independence in Bougainville when the referendum is held. But it is not in Australia's interests to be perceived as cheering for the creation of another state in the Pacific that will likely be vulnerable and largely dependent on aid. Canberra has to be careful to remain neutral while ultimately prefering to see Bougainville remain an autonomous region within Papua New Guinea.

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This incident will be particularly frustrating for Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who has worked so hard to strengthen Australia's relations with Papua New Guinea and who is held in high regard in Port Moresby. Bishop would have hoped the fact that she had quarantined Papua New Guinea from the impact of the largest ever cut to Australia's aid program was good news for Port Moresby, but instead she finds herself on the defensive in the first diplomatic stoush with Papua New Guinea under her watch.

Prime Minister O'Neill has claimed the restrictions his Government has imposed on Australians traveling to Bougainville have been well received in the autonomous region but it is not clear that this view is widely held. Current President John Momis, for example, has said he wants Foreign Minister Rimbink Pato to lift the restrictions immediately. Polling in Bougainville's elections has just closed, with the count to take place next week. It would be unfortunate if this spat between Papua New Guinea and Australia damages Port Moresby's ability to develop a positive relationship with a new government in Bougainville as it prepares for a referendum on independence within the next five years.

The Australia-Papua New Guinea relationship has depth and is bolstered by strong business links. The fact that the Papua New Guinea Government's retaliatory measures were aimed only at restricting the travel of Australians to Bougainville suggests there is no desire to harm the wider relationship. Indeed, Prime Minister O'Neill declared in his speech to the Lowy Institute last week that the relationship was in better shape than at any time since independence. On Monday this week I watched the Prime Minister give another positive speech about the bilateral trade and investment relationship alongside the visiting Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb at the Australia-PNG Business Forum in Lae, and the two had a friendly meeting afterwards.

Both governments have an interest in the delivery of an effective aid program in Bougainville. If they don't resolve this spat soon, it could end up undermining their own objectives.

There has clearly been some kind of misunderstanding, misinterpretation or miscommunication about Australia's intentions, but rather than rehash who should have said what and when, it would be in the interests of ministers in Port Moresby and Canberra to prove the maturity of the  relationship with a swift resolution to this problem.


As the Prime Minister exhorts Australians to attend centenary Anzac Day services in order to support 'our country's values', I find myself reminiscing about my first experience at an Anzac Day service in Gallipoli a decade ago.

In 2005 I was privileged to attend the first of three Anzac Day services at Gallipoli in my role as the deputy head of mission at the Australian Embassy in Turkey. Our Embassy team, in cooperation with a small team from the Department of Veterans' Affairs in Canberra, was responsible for organising the ceremonies with our Turkish hosts and ensuring the safety of Australians attending the services. My principal job on the day was coordinating the visit of Prime Minister John Howard and his delegation.

Australian troops charge an Ottoman trench, just before the evacuation at Anzac. (Wikipedia.)

The 2005 services were controversial because of problems with the Anzac Cove road, overcrowding, a decision to play disco music to entertain the crowds sleeping at the site, inappropriate behaviour by some younger 'pilgrims', and rubbish left at the site. Vast improvements were made the following year, including upgraded and educational screen entertainment provided to the visitors in the hours before the ceremony (keep in mind that the only way to reach the Gallipoli National Park on 25 April is via coach from Istanbul, so thousands of people arrive at the site in the dark and are there for many hours before dawn in near freezing temperatures and without shelter). The improvements were necessary but created a new (and expensive) tradition of the Australian Government controlling the telling of the Anzac story through high quality modern entertainment at a place many believe to be sacred.

The commemorative services at Gallipoli run over two days. The Turkish, British and French services are all held on 24 April. 25 April is reserved for the Anzacs, with the famous dawn service followed later by an Australian service at Lone Pine and the New Zealand service at Chunuk Bair.

The services on 25 April all work to a similar formula: 45 minutes of speeches from the most senior VIPs, then prayers, hymns, national anthems, catafalq parties, wreath-laying and the Last Post. I felt sorry for the speechwriters for visiting politicians and for my ambassador, who had to think of something new to say on a subject on which everything has been said while remembering to be conspicuously polite about our Turkish hosts. The overtly Christian nature of the dawn service and the other two 25 April services always seemed to me a little incongruous in a country where the practice of Christianity was heavily regulated and when Australia was apprehensive about emerging Turkish efforts to portray the Battle of Çanakkale (as the Gallipoli battle is known in Turkey) as a holy war.

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I lost count of the number of times Ataturk's famous words about Johnnies and Mehmets lying side by side in peace were uttered during each service, although I suspect our Turkish hosts kept very careful count. There is now doubt about the origin of those words but this is unlikely to have any impact on how often they are quoted in Anzac Day services at Gallipoli.

The dawn service at Anzac Cove is meant to be awe-inspiring but the inspiration is rarely found in the speeches or the hymns. I found the sun rising on the Dardanelles and lighting up the steep cliff-face behind us midway through the ceremony — a stark reminder of the impossible task facing our soldiers in 1915 — to be the most moving element of the service. This natural wonder alone made being at Anzac Cove more meaningful than dawn services in Australia. The catafalq party, carried out by Australian and New Zealand army officers, also had a way of making me hold my breath.

The Australian service at Lone Pine has a different flavour to the dawn service. As we arrived at Lone Pine for my first ceremony there in 2005, it was already full to overflowing with people and there were thousands more walking up the hill, expecting to find seats. Several groups of young Australians draped in the national flag were chanting 'Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi and oi', calling out to Prime Minister Howard and generally creating a carnival atmosphere — not exactly what I had expected.

As the searing sun in a cloudless sky reminded me I had not slept for 30 hours, we scrambled to find seats for all the VIPs and the growing number of Turkish military officers streaming in to the site, and somehow find places where a few thousand more people could at least hear, if not see, the service. While this first experience was somewhat fraught I remember enjoying the community feel of the services I attended at Lone Pine over the following two years, when volunteer choristers from home sang, and Australian primary school children who had won writing competitions read poetry and talked about Simpson and his donkey (sadly, like Ataturk's words, this story is more myth than history).

After three years attending Anzac services in Gallipoli, I remained somewhat baffled by the large numbers of young Australians who made a pilgrimage to an event marking a battle with which they had little if any connection. I was in awe of the success of the Government's efforts to create such passion in a younger generation when I had no such feeling, even as the granddaughter of a World War II veteran and a student of World War I.

Perhaps this was because I made my own connection with this place in a way that had nothing to do with ceremonies or ritual. I made my first trip to the Gallipoli peninsula in late December 2004. With Turkey's best guide, Kenan Celik OAM, and my English husband I visited the sites familiar to most Australians: Anzac Cove and Lone Pine, Hill 60, and then the battle sites and memorials relevant to other Allies and to Turkey. I learned more about Gallipoli from Kenan in one day than in all my years of schooling in Sydney.

The last thing Kenan showed us was a simple stone monument with no names of the dead or details of the battle inscribed. It marked a site where thousands of soldiers, mostly Turkish, were buried as they were killed (because the battle had to continue). It was mid-afternoon and we were beginning to lose the winter sun. I had spent a day walking among graves of young men and gazing at monuments to important stages in the battle. Yet although I had long been taught that this event defined my nation, I was struggling to create my own relationship with the place. It was only at this last, most unfamiliar of sites that I could hear the souls of the dead and I understood.


Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill did something remarkable last Thursday. In a wide-ranging policy speech at a leadership summit in Port Moresby, he acknowledged the oppression of the people of West Papua. It was the first time an incumbent prime minister of Papua New Guinea has spoken directly about the rights of West Papuans in a public forum:

Papua New Guinea today is a respected regional leader. After 40 years of undisturbed democracy, we are in a unique position to lead mature discussions on issues affecting our people in the region.

Our leading role in encouraging Fiji to return to a democratically elected government and voicing our concerns about the plight of our people in New Caledonia are examples of our growing influence. We have also participated in the restoration of democracy and law and order in countries like Vanuatu and Solomon Islands.

But sometimes we forgot our family, our brothers and sisters, especially those in West Papua.

I think as a country the time has come for us to speak about oppression our people. Pictures of brutality of our people appear daily on social media and yet we take no notice. We have the moral obligation to speak for those who are not allowed to talk. We must be the eyes for those who are blindfolded. Again, Papua New Guinea, as a regional leader, we must lead these discussions with our friends in a mature and engaging manner.

O'Neill was careful not to refer to independence or greater autonomy for West Papua. He also made no reference to the latest attempt by West Papuan independence groups to seek membership of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. But significantly, he referred to West Papuans as 'family', 'brothers and sisters' and 'our people.' This is not quite the same as questioning the sovereignty of Indonesia over West Papua but is a radical departure from previous language. It is notable that in the year that Papua New Guinea celebrates 40 years of independence from colonial rule, the Prime Minister of the most populous Melanesian state has sought to identify with Melanesian populations which are not yet independent – in New Caledonia and in West Papua.

Interestingly, O'Neill indicated he was concerned about the pictures of brutality appearing on social media. If his decision to speak out now was even in part inspired by the images of human rights abuses posted by supporters of West Papua on Facebook and Twitter, this is a breakthrough moment for the influence of activists who use social media for political advocacy in Papua New Guinea. Indeed, those who post pictures on social media of brutality that women experience in Papua New Guinea will hope the Prime Minister may be paying attention to them too.

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O'Neill's remarks will be a blow to Jakarta (see here for comments from Indonesia's Human Rights Commissioner). Indonesia has been working hard to court Melanesian states and has attended Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) meetings as an observer as part of efforts to dissuade the MSG from admitting the West Papuan independence movement as a member. The then Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was the guest of honour at Fiji's Pacific Islands Development Forum meeting in Fiji last year, demonstrating the importance Indonesia attaches to influencing Melanesian countries.

Although the PNG Government has long carefully managed its relationship with Indonesia and avoided public statements on West Papua, there is much support in the PNG community and among a number of MPs for the West Papuan independence movement. Papua New Guinea's capacity to drive international action on a human rights issues is unproven, but O'Neill will now come under domestic pressure to follow through on his statement. The decision by Indonesia's Foreign Ministry to establish a special working group to 'handle developments and issues relating to Papua' might offer a window for closer engagement with Papua New Guinea on human rights issues.

O'Neill's remarks will have surprised others in the region. O'Neill has been at odds with with Fiji's Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama over a range of issues, including Fiji's desire to reform regional diplomatic architecture. O'Neill's statement on West Papuan human rights may now leave Fiji as an outlier within the Melanesia Spearhead Group; Vanuatu and Solomon Islands are supporters of West Papuan independence but Bainimarama has been reluctant to endorse West Papuan demands. At a time when Fiji's government is seeking to reclaim regional leadership at the expense of Papua New Guinea's ambitions, this will unnerve Fiji.

The move also wrong-foots Canberra. It would be naïve to imagine Canberra can comfortably stay neutral on this issue. Australia wants a stable relationship between its two nearest neighbours and therefore has an interest in averting tensions over West Papua. The Australian Government's position in relation to West Papuan lobbying efforts has always been that it supports the sovereignty of Indonesia over the provinces of Papua and West Papua, a position shared by the Papua New Guinea Government.

Australia has also been supportive of Papua New Guinea assuming a more significant regional leadership role, consistent with the size of its population, its economy and its potential for growth. Papua New Guinea is a country of some 7 million people and its economy, the largest of the Pacific Island countries, is forecast to grow by 15% in 2015, more than any other country in the world. Canberra can hardly complain if Peter O'Neill has determined that PNG will stand a better chance of recognition as a regional leader if he stands up for the rights of West Papuans. But in so doing, he has changed regional dynamics in the Pacific, probably made them even more difficult for Australia to attempt to manage and may even add to pressure on Australia to act.

Papua New Guinea will host the Pacific Islands Forum leaders' summit this year. The Forum has avoided recognition of West Papua issues in its official pronouncements but discussion this year could be quite different if PNG, this year's chair, campaigns for it.


The count in Fiji's elections is well underway following a smooth, apparently trouble-free poll yesterday. Provisional results are expected today, with the process of allocating seats in parliament to follow. It seems likely that FijiFirst, the party of incumbent Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, will form government.

I argued here (Fiji election: More to do to restore democracy) that elections are only the start of Fiji's transition back to democracy, a sentiment Australia's Foreign Minister echoed last night while welcoming the successful conduct of the elections. From the way the election has been conducted, there are reasons to be confident that Fiji is indeed on the path to building a full democracy. Unfortunately there are also reasons to be worried.

Reasons to be confident:

1. High voter turn-out: reported record numbers of voters coming out to vote indicate public confidence in the process and enthusiasm for participating in democracy. This is important if Fiji's population is ultimately to hold its elected representatives to account and create an impetus for those representatives to do their job.

2. The rise of social media: in Fiji's first election in the age of social media, voters, official observers and journalists excitedly posted photos of the voting experience to Facebook and Twitter. In a country where free speech is constrained and even while a media blackout was in place (which also applied to social media), the determination of Fijians to communicate with each other and with the world about their election bodes well for their willingness to insist on the right to engage openly in public debate.

Reasons to be worried:

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1. A new Secretary-General (Clerk) of the Fiji Parliament was appointed on 16 September, the day before the election. Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum announced that senior civil servant Viniana Namosimalua would be taking on the position, effective immediately. He also announced the appointment of a new Deputy Secretary-General, Mary Qiliaso, to work alongside Namosimalua.

The optics of an unelected incumbent government making such a senior appointment on the eve of the election, and during a media blackout, are poor. But worse, it appears to be unconstitutional. According to Fiji's 2013 constitution, the President elects the Secretary-General in consultation with the Constitutional Offices Commission, which includes the Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Attorney-General, two people appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister and one appointed on the advice of the Leader of the Opposition.

As there is very obviously no leader of the opposition in place prior to the election, it is hard to see who was consulted in this appointment. If Bainimarama does form a government, the apparent disregard from his Attorney-General for the most basic of parliamentary processes does not inspire confidence.

2. Since Rear Admiral Bainimarama stood down from his military commander's role, there has been an expectation that Fiji's military would step back from politics, an expectation supported by statements from Commander Brigadier General Mosese Tikoitoga.

The Fiji Government had said the military would not be involved in pre-election and election-day proceedings, but on the eve of the election, Tikoitoga announced the military was on standby. The military also conducted a highly visible training exercise in a public area on election eve, creating a storm on social media, and marched in the streets of Suva. These actions have unnecessarily and unhelpfully raised the profile of the military at the very time when it should have taken a low profile. 

If the parties, and most importantly the eventual government, act responsibly, my reasons to be worried may disappear and my reasons to be confident may grow. But it is clear Fiji still has work to do to prove its democratic credentials.


After eight years of Voreqe Bainimarama's military rule in Fiji, there is much excitement about the prospects for Fiji's return to democracy with elections next week. Seven parties and one independent candidate will contest 50 parliamentary seats. 591,095 Fijians have registered to vote; 120,000 of them will vote for the first time. With limited time and despite some constraints applied by the Fiji Government, the Fiji Elections Office has educated Fiji's voters on a new voting system, trained some 14,000 volunteers to staff polling stations and injected a vigour to the process that significantly diminishes the risk of fraudulent behaviour.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has expressed confidence in the preparations underway for the elections. A Multinational Observer Group co-led by Australia, India, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and featuring observers from at least ten other countries is already in Fiji monitoring the elections.

It is tempting to see the elections as the culmination of years of international pressure, driven largely by Australia and New Zealand, for Bainimarama to deliver on his promise to restore democracy in Fiji. 

In a new Lowy Institute Policy Brief, I argue that elections are only the start of Fiji's transition back to democracy. Fiji has much more work to do to restore all the elements of a democratic society. And Australia should play a key role in assisting this transition.

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Fiji's democratic institutions have taken a battering since the 2006 coup. Political parties were not permitted to operate as parties until 2014. There was no formal political opposition to Bainimarama's Government. The independence of the judiciary has been compromised. The freedoms of Fiji's media and civil society are constrained.

Elections themselves do not make a democracy. As we have seen in other ostensibly democratic polities, such as in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, elections can be used by dominant leaders to both legitimise and entrench authoritarianism. Developments in Turkey in recent years are one such example. Charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proved his talent for winning elections, with his Justice and Development Party claiming victory in six consecutive polls (general and nationwide local elections) and most recently winning Turkey's first ever popular election for president.

But Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, restricting civil liberties, cracking down on public protests and imprisoning record numbers of journalists. Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol has argued that Erdogan has created a 'winner-takes-all democracy' where as elected leader, he both defines and dominates the nation to the exclusion of opposing voices.

If Bainimarama's Fiji First party is in a position to form a government either in its own right or in a coalition after the poll next Wednesday and Bainimarama is elected prime minister, there is no guarantee he will be a democratic leader. Indeed, his authoritarian governing style to date, his aversion to criticism and suspicion of media and civil society indicate he is more likely to emulate the leadership example of Erdogan than that of a typical leader of the Westminster style of government prevalent in the Pacific Islands region.

Bainimarama has arguably evolved as a civilian rather than a military leader through the campaign process. If elected, however, he is likely to see victory as a vindication of his leadership approach and agenda for Fiji rather than seize the opportunity to remake himself as the leader of a vibrant parliamentary democracy. After years of ruling by decree and centralising decision-making in his office, Bainimarama and his Attorney-General Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum will struggle to adjust to facing robust debate in parliament in order to pass legislation. The 2013 constitution does little to promote a more independent judiciary. Some constraints on the freedoms of civil society and media prevail.

Without the moderating influence of an effective parliament, where an opposition holds the government to account, an independent judiciary and (in the words of the Australian Foreign Minister) a 'free and unfettered media to hold all the sides of politics to account on behalf of the people', an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama will not be able to consolidate the progress established by the election.

Australia, which has already begun to re-engage with Fiji and has provided significant assistance for the elections, must continue to support Fiji's transition to democracy. Persuading an elected Prime Minister Bainimarama (if indeed he is victorious) of the value of Australian support for democratic institutions will be challenging given his suspicions of Canberra. It will require skilled Australian diplomacy and patience but also real leverage, something Australia has in the attractiveness to Fiji of a reconstituted bilateral defence relationship. 

Australia should consider offering further elements of the assistance package Julie Bishop announced in February. These should include 'no strings attached' new partnerships with the Fijian parliament, support for civil society, media and the rule of law, and an enhanced military relationship. If Australia does not take the lead in assisting democratic institutions and the building blocks of democracy in Fiji, who will?


Pacific Island leaders will meet at the annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting next week in Palau. Prime Minister Abbott has cancelled his travel plans in order to focus on the response to the MH17 disaster and is sending Deputy Prime Minister Truss in his stead.

Pacific leaders will be disappointed but will no doubt understand. What will disappoint them more is a much greater snub for the region: the decision by ABC management to slash Radio Australia's capacity and services. This decision will diminish Australia's leadership and influence and do long term damage to both political and people-to-people relationships.

As a result of the loss of the Australia Network contract and other budget cuts, ABC management is making swingeing cuts to the Asia Pacific News Centre and ABC International. Correspondent positions in Asia, the Pacific and in Parliament House Canberra will be abolished. The Tok Pisin (PNG) language service will be cut to just three staff — this for a country which has just been elevated in the Australian Government's foreign policy priorities, where the economy is growing at record pace, and where radio remains king.

Editorial and technical staff for the popular Pacific Beat program will be reduced. A six-hour per day television service will be syndicated in the region but its primary news program, The World, is due to be broadcast late at night and early in the morning in the Pacific. Given the television audience in the Pacific is already limited to the urban elite, this is of questionable value.

While ABC management stresses that news services will remain, it's hard to see who will produce the stories that feed the news. By retrenching its most experienced Pacific hands as well as abolishing correspondent positions, the ABC will lose much of its capacity to report. The loss of journalistic legend Sean Dorney, who has the deepest understanding of the Pacific of any Australian journalist, will be felt deeply in the region. Presenters will likely need to rely on social media sources and the internet sites of Pacific newspapers to gather news. There are quality and reliability questions around both these sources and to a significant degree they already rely on the ABC for content.

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The impact of the decision will be a terrible blow to Pacific Island populations which rely on Radio Australia to report about not only international news but events in their own country. In an age where domestic news broadcasters across the Pacific are shrinking and in some cases being subjected to increasing political control, Radio Australia provides a vital service. Because Radio Australia provided coverage of criticism of Commodore Bainimarama's interim government in Fiji, he shut down transmission of Radio Australia services in 2009, demonstrating the considerable influence he considered Radio Australia to have. In addition to regular news services, Radio Australia also provides a critical service warning affected populations to prepare for impending cyclones, king tides or tsunamis and advises when help is on the way.

The cuts are a huge diplomatic own goal for Australia. Radio Australia has the single greatest reach of any Australian entity in our neighbourhood. Australia's diplomats are represented in almost every capital in the region but they can only travel out beyond the capital as their limited budgets permit. The approximately $1 billion Australian aid program to PNG and the Pacific has significant reach across the region but is not everywhere and the work of the aid program is often only known to Pacific civil servants. Australian banks ANZ and Westpac have a presence in most countries of the region but their reach is limited to people who bank.

Almost every household in the region, however, either owns a radio or has access to a radio in their village. In many remote parts of the region, where domestic broadcasters cannot be picked up or where shortwave radio is the sole means of access to the world, Radio Australia dominates. Whenever I have traveled to remote villages in the region, I have been struck by how much detailed knowledge the local residents had of Australia. There were hardly any books in the villages and no newspapers, let alone internet. All their knowledge was learned by listening to Radio Australia on shortwave radio. The growing coverage and availability of mobile phones and growth of internet access is changing the media scene but at a much slower rate in the Pacific than elsewhere. Many illiterate Papua New Guinean villagers, for example use their mobile phones to listen to radio rather than sign on to Twitter.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has said she wants Australia to be recognised as the partner of choice for Pacific Island countries and is frustrated by the recognition China and other countries receive for much smaller aid contributions. A smaller Radio Australia will struggle to enhance the recognition of Australia's contribution to the region; it will barely be able to fulfil its charter. Radio Australia already has a small budget and provides extraordinarily good value for money. But cuts in the range of 60% will threaten not only the quality but the viability of the service. It is worth noting that China is investing in its international television and radio broadcasting, including in shortwave in the Pacific.

As Australia seeks to step up its diplomatic influence globally, it is not the right time for the ABC to be stepping back from its critical soft power role in the Asia Pacific. 

Photo by Flickr user Daniel Lu.