TRADING "PACIFIC WAY" FOR "AUSTRALIAN WAY"

Commentary

By James Chin

SUVA, Fiji (Pacific Islands Report, Aug. 27) The Election of retired Australian diplomat Greg Urwin as the South Pacific Forum's secretary general has caused a lot of unhappiness in Port Moresby.

The Prime Minister, Michael Somare, is clearly unhappy with the outcome and his view is widely shared among the political elite in Papua New Guinea.

Their view is that since Australia and New Zealand are the regional powers, they are well supported by the Forum states for international positions outside the Pacific like the UN, APEC and the Commonwealth.

In return, Australia and New Zealand should let a Pacific islander hold on to the regional forum's top job.

Furthermore, the vote taken to elect Urwin cannot possibly be fair and free in light of Australia's omnipresence in the South Pacific.

Australia's aid money is the economic lifeline of the smaller states and when the chips are down, they cannot possibly vote against Australia.

The unhappiness extends to what observers here think is Australia's stronger push to impose its will on the Pacific, particularly in the area of good governance.

Somare publicly berated the notion of failed states in a major speech in Wellington, claiming that it was another conspiracy by the policy-making and academic community to put down Pacific states.

In Somare's mind, Australia's $350 million annual aid to PNG has created a worldwide perception that PNG cannot survive without aid and that "brown people" cannot rule themselves properly without the "white masta".

In the last session of parliament, several MPs publicly questioned if AusAID was running a parallel government in PNG given that it is either running or funding key areas in health, education, transport, HIV/AIDS, law and order and community development.

The World Bank's Klaus Rohland made the same observation in a major speech last year, claiming that AusAID's work had in fact weakened state capacity because it bypassed the state in delivering the aid projects.

The PNG government is reduced to a consultative role in the process.

Although the criticism received scant coverage in PNG, it is public knowledge that many rural communities approached AusAID for help directly before turning to the PNG government.

For nationalists like Somare and his cabinet colleagues it may be too much to take.

The constant reminder that the country he led to independence has gone backwards in all the social-economic indicators since 1975 is seen as a direct indictment of PNG political leaders.

Many believe Australia's rhetoric on the need for "good governance" is a polite way of saying that corruption at the highest levels is the cause of PNG's malaise.

Australia's intervention in the Solomons reinforced the perception that Australia intends to play the "big man" role more assertively from now on.

Some genuinely believe that PNG is next on the list for direct Australia intervention.

A former PNG Defence Force chief has said that he believes that military planners in Canberra are drawing up plans for intervention just in case the order is given.

Beneath the surface is the realization that the old way, the Pacific Way, is set to disappear.

The Pacific Way, a term used more than three decades ago by Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara of Fiji, was meant to describe a unique way of making decisions by Pacific Islanders.

The essence was a rejection of using voting as the principle way of making hard choices.

Rather, decisions had to be made via consensus and endless rounds of discussion.

In practice this meant difficult political challenges were either watered-down or decisions not made at all.

Small island states could delay important decisions by simply refusing to accept any consensus.

The vote taken in Wellington for Urwin's job has irreversibly changed the consensus system.

By forcing a vote to be taken, Howard signaled that Australia will no longer accept the Pacific Way as a legitimate excuse to delay governance reforms or make difficult decisions.

The consequences in the long term will likely be positive - forcing island nations to face up to difficult issues at the regional level even if they refuse to change at the domestic level.

The problem will be Australia's long-term commitment to see through its push for faster political reforms in the islands, rather than at the snail's pace of the Pacific Way.

The immediate danger to Australia's security will continue to be terror networks in South-East Asia and Australia's role as a major ally of the US in the war against terror.

Unless it can be proven that Islamic terrorists are using the smaller Pacific states as one of their bases (and remember, the population of Muslims in the region - other than Indian Muslims in Fiji - is minuscule), the Pacific states will not top the foreign policy agenda for any period of time.

August 27, 2003

James Chin teaches at the University of PNG.

 

 

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