By Russell Hunter APIA, Samoa (Samoa Observer, August 8, 2009) – The 40th Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting ended in Cairns this week with the now familiar forest-depleting communiqué and annexes.

How the leaders managed to squeeze in such a lengthy – and weighty - agenda over the two days is something of a wonder.

They discussed climate change, fisheries, agriculture, food security, crime, maritime surveillance and even violence against women among a host of other items.

Now of course, these are matters well worthy of the leaders’ attention – just as they were last year. And the year before that and the year before that.

Also on the agenda was the bulk purchase of petrol by the smaller island states. This is a good one. The issue first surfaced at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Melbourne in 1981. At that time the plan was to establish a sea-borne storage facility somewhere off Tonga that would in turn supply the islands. Over the ensuing 28 years the plan hasn’t altered all that radically. In fact it hasn’t altered at all. It’s still a plan.

We’re rather good at planning in this part of the world.

There’s even a Pacific Plan which the late and still lamented former Forum Secretary-General Greg Urwin piloted through a meticulous and sometimes controversial passage. And there it is today – still a plan, and a good one at that.

What is the relevance of the Pacific Islands Forum today in the lives of the people it sets out to serve? Its 16 members come from a widely disparate range of "islands" – from Australia and New Zealand to Kiribati and Nauru. There is limited commonality of interest and next to no trade between the members (apart from the exports that come from the metropolitan nations to the south). What, then, does the Pacific Islands Forum actually do?

Well it plans, of course.

And while it’s unfair as some critics have done to describe the annual summit as more of a social occasion that a decision making conference, there is very much an air of the smaller countries showing up and doing what Australia and New Zealand want.

Take this year’s decision on greenhouse gas emissions. The islands went to the forum with a prepared position on greenhouse gas reduction. They left agreeing with Australia – a major greenhouse gas emitter – that it could not be achieved and that a much lesser, far more suitable (for Australia) target should be set.

On trade and in particular the PACER-Plus initiative so beloved of Australia and New Zealand, many of the island states had and have grave misgivings. Yet there is now agreement that the process will continue at an accelerated pace.

Then there was the curious behaviour of the Melanesian Spearhead Group, a faction within the forum that even has its own expensive secretariat. It was, we were told, going to stand up for Fiji (one of its members) at this year’s forum leaders meeting. It didn’t and the illegal regime of Frank Bainimarama remains suspended.

Now it’s entirely possible that the MSG’s posturing on Fiji was no more than a negotiating position to extract concessions out of Australia and New Zealand. Even his Melanesian mates are sick and tired of Frank but if he could be used as a lever to prise open a few doors, why not? That’s all acceptable in the diplomacy game.

But where are the concessions? What doors have opened?

Remember, the forum works on consensus. That means a single dissenter can block any initiative. One wonders how many plans (that word again) over the years have been blocked or are the islands content to pocket some more aid and say "yes" at the appropriate moments? Surely not.

But that’s the perception. Until they see otherwise, people will believe that he who pays the piper calls the tune and the Australia and New Zealand certainly do pay the forum piper.

They pick up most of the tab for the team of very highly qualified people at the Forum Secretariat in Suva. These people work hard. They are constantly asked for position papers, analyses and, yes, plans.

There’s no question that they are fully occupied. The question is: to what end? How does all this effort benefit the people of the region?

The Pacific Islands Forum should continue to exist if nothing else as a clearing house for views and experiences of the island states. But to become relevant it has to do more. It could start by showing those who pay for its existence that it can make a difference in their lives.

It did not show that in Cairns this week.

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