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Sydney Morning Herald Sydney, Australia

August 6, 2001


For the Prime Minister, Mr. Howard, the world is a grand stage. Having returned from Japan at the weekend, on Sunday he departs for Jakarta for talks with the new Indonesian President, Ms. Megawati Sukarnoputri. He will head to Washington to meet President George Bush on September 10. In October, he will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Brisbane in the presence of the Queen. Mr. Howard must surely be hoping for an electoral boost from his statesmanship. Unfortunately, in his busy itinerary he seems blinded to the reality that the South Pacific Forum (now Pacific Islands Forum) is the only world theater where Australia has top billing.

Mr. Howard has cancelled his attendance at the South Pacific Forum meeting in Nauru from August 17 to 20. The island nations regard the forum as their annual chance of gaining the attention of their two most important neighbors, Australia and New Zealand. The official reason for the last-minute cancellation is its proximity to his trip to Jakarta. However, it is the third snub handed the Pacific nations gathering by Mr. Howard during six years as Prime Minister. Understandably, Forum nations have been dismayed by Mr. Howard's latest rudeness. It speaks eloquently not only of his attitude toward them but reveals the Government's misplaced priorities toward leadership responsibilities in the Pacific.

Australia's diplomatic insensitivity has been further underscored by the Government's decision to tell the media of Mr. Howard's non-attendance before informing the meeting's organizers and the host nation. Not even the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Anderson, will step into the diplomatic black hole caused by Mr. Howard's absence. Instead, adding insult to injury, the Government has decided it will be represented by the soon-to-retire Minister for Defense, Mr. Reith.

The prime ministerial cold shoulder comes as several shadows fall across the South Pacific Forum. Atoll nations facing rising sea levels are worried by Australia's failure to ratify the Kyoto protocol on global warming. Fiji has crucial post-coup elections within weeks. There are problems in the Solomon Islands over the corrupt foreign aid distribution following a coup last year. Papua New Guinea is again beset by economic and social challenges amid violence and protests against privatization of government assets. Resolution of Bougainville’s problems remains poised at a delicate stage and there has been political murder in Samoa.

The issue of West Papuan independence is also expected to be the focus of strong lobbying at the Forum. Australia's recent support for the establishment of a West Pacific Forum is certain to cause conflict over West Papua. Australia backs Indonesian sovereignty over Irian Jaya. However, a West Pacific Forum would inevitably consider troubled Irian Jaya. Melanesian nations widely support West Papuan independence and find it difficult to comprehend Australia's support for East Timor independence and not that of West Papua.

Perhaps the biggest change confronting Australia's position as something of a lead player in the Pacific this year is China's decision to expand its Melanesian friendships through economic and military assistance. China's entry has potential to cause seismic shifts in South Pacific relationships. Yet in such a time of change, Mr. Howard has inexplicably let drop the opportunity to personally assert Australia's traditional position as a predominant power. Whatever the Prime Minister's pretensions to leadership on the world stage, his decision to send a lame duck understudy to the South Pacific Forum is wrong-headed and a national embarrassment.

For additional reports from The Sydney Morning Herald, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

Provided by: Australia West Papua Association, Sydney PO BOX 65 Millers Point Australia 2000 Tel/Fax: 61.2. 99601698

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