Government officials, diplomats, aid officials, multilateral bankers and a handful of private sector representatives will come together with a host of non-member country representatives (including from China, Indonesia, Japan and the US) who have been hopping on and off connecting flights to swivel their way to the Cook Islands for the 2012 Pacific Islands Forum and the post-forum dialogue, taking place this week.
Leaders' photo from the 2010 Pacific Islands Forum (courtesy of Flickr user nznationalparty.)
As international forums go, the Pacific Islands Forum can be colourful but it continues to be dogged by commentary that it is flirting with irrelevance. Similar to other multilateral forums, the discussions often struggles to shape public policy debate. A lack of civil society engagement in the Forum means new ideas are few and policy isn't always contested and debated.
Aid initiatives will be announced by the plethora of government and non-government aid agencies in attendance, with the biggest being a much needed Australia-led gender initiative. Pacific leaders will again discuss Fiji's possible return to democracy, having once more been undercut by Fiji's third 'Engaging with the Pacific' meeting. Participants will note the growing presence of non-member country contingents as these 'observers' battle it out for influence and strategic edge in the region.
Julia Gillard's briefings will be bulkier than usual at this year's Forum and she will be flanked by a posse of Australian diplomats with one dominant objective: to sew up UN Security Council votes. The vote is set to take place in October in New York and getting UN Ambassadors to vote for you is easier said than done. The vote is anonymous, meaning that even publicly-funded VIP trips to Australia for UN Ambassadors, where diplomats consider their votes against the backdrop of the Australian coastline, cannot ensure Australia will be favoured over Finland and Luxembourg on the day.
With resources being funneled into Australia's UN Security Council bid, our relationship with the Pacific has been sidelined. This is not a complete surprise but we will pay for it later as Pacific leaders continue to seek out new ties and re-invigorate old ones while we focus on UN diplomacy in New York.
The Australian Government's uncanny ability to project our domestic problems into the Pacific Islands region continues to corrode Australia's goodwill and reputation with Pacific Islanders. Prime Minister Gillard will ensure she gets quality bilateral time with PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill and Nauru's President Sprent Dabwido at the Pacific Islands Forum to lock down asylum detention centres in both countries. In PNG, Peter O'Neill’s quick decision to approve the use of Manus Island came without debate and there are mixed feelings in PNG about the detention centre.
The Papua New Guinea Government has placed a temporary ban on all foreign media from entering the country to cover Australia's plans for offshore processing of asylum seekers in Manus island – another blow to Pacific media freedom.