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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (October 6, 1998 - Agence France-Presse)---A shipping company which used to attract big headlines and bitter political controversy is marking its 20th anniversary satisfied that these days few know much about it.

It had Australian and New Zealand prime ministers trading insults, saw exhausting waterfront trade union battles and nearly went bankrupt.

Today the Pacific Forum Line (PFL) is owned by 12 South Pacific countries and operates container ships and freighters around the region.

"It is one of the few modern trading companies whose origins lie in international diplomacy," author Tony Nightingale says in his book "The Pacific Forum Line: A Commitment to Regional Shipping."

"Today, unless you are directly involved with trade to the Pacific Islands, it is unlikely that you would know much about it. This reflects success. Despite a shaky start, the Pacific Forum Line has survived as a company and developed into a unique expression of the region's identity."

The name PFL reflected the political relationship with the South Pacific Forum, the now 16-nation-strong regional political grouping.

Pacific shipping has always been something of a haphazard business, dominated from 1881 by the Union Steam Ship Company, which was later taken over by the English P and O Line and then in 1972 sold to Australia's Thomas Nationwide Transport.

In the islands the company had always been identified with the outgoing colonial administrations.

Its old conventional ships were, in the new age of containerization, becoming too expensive to replace.

Countries like Samoa and Tonga were worried they were going to lose a regular shipping service and would become dependent on any passing ship.

The PFL began operations in 1978 with two chartered conventional ships, but they needed container ships. The then West German Government came to their aid with money and ships, primarily, says Nightingale, to keep their own shipyards busy.

Australia, a member of the Forum, was opposed to the PFL and its then Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, went head-to-head with the feisty New Zealand leader, Robert Muldoon.

Fraser believed the scheme was promoting New Zealand trade at the expense of Australia's and, more significantly, was worried at the substantial under-capitalization which saw PFL by 1980 on the brink of bankruptcy.

It was saved only by a soft loan from the European Investment Bank and capital grants from Australia, New Zealand and seven island nations.

PFL also struggled to survive New Zealand trade union practices which saw the then powerful Seamen's Union demand its members, with their high New Zealand salaries, crew vessels. Waterfront practices, too, saw PFL ships spending more time being unloaded in the high technology port of Auckland than they were in the very basic port of Nuku'alofa in Tonga.

But it survived to operate a varying fleet which include container ships they own and vessels under charter.

Nightingale says PFL is a "unique blend of a commercial shipping venture and regional diplomacy."

"The line is a tangible expression of a unity of purpose among Pacific nations which has lasted for over 20 years and seems likely to continue."

He said it was naively established with virtually no capital and it struggled in a position of weakness. It also demonstrated New Zealand's geographical identification with the Pacific and Australia's status as a medium-sized world power.

"Both countries may be accused of following self-interest in their attitude to PFL."

While the line's first decade was troubled the second was relatively free of political controversy.

"Profits, although hard to find, have finally been achieved and directors have approved the first dividend payment," said Nightingale.

Michael J Field Agence France-Presse Auckland, New Zealand TEL: (64 21) 688-438 FAX: (64 21) 694-035 E-Mail: WWW:

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