The Twenty-Eight South Pacific Forum

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The 28th South Pacific Forum By Dr. Sanjay Ramesh

The 28th South Pacific Forum was held in Rarotonga from 17 to 19 September and was attended by Heads of States and Governments and representatives of Australia, the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Before this grand meeting, the Smaller Island States (SIS) held its Seventh Economic Summit from 12 to 13 September 1997.

These two summits had one thing in common: the island states of the Pacific voiced concern over some of their severe environmental and economic problems. Of course, the stage had been set for a showdown between the Pacific Island nations and Australia in July 1997 when a confidential Australian Eyes Only (AUSTEO) document was leaked during the Forum Economic Ministers' Meeting (FEMM).

This report, among other things, criticised the Pacific Island nations for weak political leadership, economic mismanagement and lack of impetus for reform.

Immediately following the disclosure, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer, went on a diplomatic mission to salvage Australia’s faltering reputation. Downer went to both Fiji and Vanuatu. In Fiji, the former Minister for Finance, Berenado Vunibobo, denounced Australia’s criticism and he was joined by Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka, who saw the Australian comments as counterproductive. Quickly, however, Australia’s ambassador to Fiji, His Excellency Greg Urwin, assured Fijian authorities that his government was committed to Fiji and the Pacific region. The timely work of the ambassador was followed up by Downer who promised Fiji Australia’s support for its entry back into the Commonwealth. But Downer remained adamant on economic reform, which is seen by many Pacific Island nations as a recipe for social and political instability.

For Canberra, the comments contained in the FEMM document highlighted many economic and structural inadequacies in the Pacific. In fact, in the past, and many times during South Pacific Forum meetings, similar sentiments were expressed by Canberra. Armed with aid and trade, Australia continues to cudgel Pacific leaders into accepting an "acceptable" paradigm for economic development. So much so, the Australian bureaucrats continue to judge Pacific Island leaders and their country solely on the basis of crude economic indicators. There is no effort whatsoever to analyse the totally different circumstances that many Pacific nations encounter in the post-colonial period. For Small Island States in the Pacific, the urgent problem is greenhouse emissions and the subsequent rises in sea levels. Environmental concerns have been continually highlighted by regional activist groups like Greenpeace and the Pacific Resource Concerns Centre. But Australia insists that there shall be no global quota on the reduction of greenhouse gases and that each individual country shall be allowed to develop its own environmental policy.

The Australian stand is seen by many Pacific Island nations as grossly unfair, because there is evidence to suggest that Australia is one of the major polluters in the Pacific region. Small Island States such as Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, and Tuvalu face catastrophe and Kiribati and Tuvalu will eventually sink. Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Bikenibau Paeniu has accused Australia of taking a weak approach to the reduction of greenhouse gases. The concerns of the Small Island States are based on an Assessment Report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change which stated that the "balance of scientific evidence suggests a discernible human influence on the global climate..." The report further states that the cultural and economic survival of these nations are inextricably linked to the environment. Despite this report, Canberra argues that it is not in the "national interest" of Australia to proceed with drastic cuts to greenhouse emissions and that any such step would cost Australian jobs.

The national interest argument, however, does not live up to scrutiny, since Canberra has already started to rationalise public service in Australia and initiate nation-wide cutbacks which will see many jobs go. The argument of national interest is, then, by far, facetious. As for Australian industry, it is, in fact, in the process of restructuring, and this is further aided by a new Workplace Relations Act, which aims to do away with collective bargaining. Threats to Australian jobs are imminent and this insecurity has been largely fuelled by government policy. The Pacific Island leaders cannot understand Australia’s "national interest" argument nor can they comprehend the move to link aid to economic reform.

The Forum meeting in Rarotonga was based on the theme of "Reform, Human Values and Togetherness." In the end, Australia got its way and in the final communiqué the Pacific nations, half heartedly, joined its Australian counterparts in applauding the Forum Economic Ministers' Meeting in Cairns on 11 July 1997. Already, Fiji and the Solomon Islands have started to move towards down-sizing their respective public service sectors. In the Solomon Islands, up to 3,000 jobs are expected to go. Interestingly, Fiji was brought on side by Prime Minister John Howard’s personal assurance to Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka of Australia’s support for Fiji’s re-entry into the Commonwealth.

While Australia is facing the brunt of Pacific Island criticism, there are other regional players that deserve the same scrutiny. Japan and China are Post Forum Dialogue partners that have moved into Pacific, while Britain and the USA have reduced their presence. Japan opened a South Pacific Trade Centre in 1996 and hosted a summit from 13 to 14 October, 1997. Like Australia, Japan wants to stay away from the environmental issues and previously, there has been a lot of criticism of Japan for its part in the transportation of reprocessed nuclear fuels through the Pacific. In addition, Japan has vested interest in seabed minerals and tuna. Japan’s motive then is to establish good relationship with its Pacific Island neighbours and to do exactly that, it has gone soft with the push for economic reform.

In the end, however, it s Australia that will have to show leadership in a region that is plagued with environmental and economic problems. Canberra’s overly bureaucratic "quick-fix" economic initiative will only help to alienate Pacific Island countries. It is, therefore, in the best interest of Canberra to constructively assist its neighbours with a prudent policy which, among other things, will encourage sustainable development and, at the same time, deduce ways to cut greenhouse gases so that Small Island States can stay afloat.

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