Samoa Observer

APIA, Samoa (Aug. 1, 2010) – This week in Port Vila, Vanuatu, the 41st Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting convenes and for probably the 41st time, those whom they lead are left to wonder just how relevant it is to their daily lives.

The PIF comprises a group of 16 nations with hugely diverse interests, characteristics and cultures. Members include Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshal Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Two are not islands at all. Australia is a continent while Papua New Guinea has a land border with Indonesia.

Indeed the Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Michael Somare, is on record as saying that the forum does not consider Australians and New Zealanders to be islanders, though he was probably talking in terms of culture rather than geography.

However, the members do share a commitment to democracy, human rights, the rule of law and respect for varying opinions.

Yet their leaders (with the very notable exception of Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Maleilegaoi) don’t hesitate to flock to Fiji in a show of solidarity with a nation where none of the above exist and which has been suspended from the regional body.

There’s precious little decorum in this forum.

Why? It’s mostly self interest. Ironically the thing that is most complained of in the PIF – the overwhelming influence of Australia and New Zealand – is perhaps the glue that holds the organisation together.

The leaders and ministers who answered the illegal dictator’s call for solidarity went to Fiji for entirely their own reasons a major one of which was to demonstrate to Australia and New Zealand that they can’t be pushed around.

Quite how they justify showing that by handing a massive propaganda victory to a bully who has not the remotest regard for the principles on which the forum is founded is for them alone to explain.

But then again, brinkmanship has become part of the forum persona. There’s a lot of noise before the event and much quiet consensus at the end of it. It was exemplified last year by the pre-forum calls by certain countries for Fiji to be readmitted only to accept the consensus during the meeting that Fiji was most emphatically left out.

The forum, like the Commonwealth, works on consensus. There’s no majority vote as such but of course there is the inevitable arm twisting involving aid, trade and influence.

But the differences among the members are immense. What, for instance, does Niue think of Papua New Guinea’s multi-billion dollar liquefied natural gas pipeline to Australia (with a similar plan for water on the drawing board)?

What can island states that grow and produce the same items trade with each other?

How can small island states like Samoa overcome the bureaucracy barriers faced by agricultural exporters to Australia and New Zealand?

How can the real people of Fiji hope to return to their previous averagely prosperous lives with their natural freedoms and rights when their neighbours’ leaders suck up to the man who removed them?

The forum has consistently failed not so much to answer these and other questions but to ask them.

Yet the PIF is nothing if not a survivor. There is neither sign nor even possibility that its 41st meeting will be among its last. It’s just such a great pity that it’s so fragmented in terms of national interests.

Thus the leaders are willing to prolong the suffering of the people of Fiji in the interest of scoring a few points against Australia and New Zealand – secure in the knowledge that forum policy will not alter and so no real harm is done to anyone (apart from the people of that tragic country).

In any case the people of Fiji will sooner or later deal with their illegal dictator in their own way and the forum leaders will doubtless move on to the next distraction while the real issue facing the region – PACER Plus – is, while not out of the frame, certainly out of focus.

The trade proposal to progressively dismantle trade barriers has the potential to do great good for some countries and great harm for others if the one size fits all approach is allowed to prevail.

But instead of constructive engagement the forum members are confronted with bureaucratic battling over the (Australia and New Zealand funded) Office of the Trade Adviser – the office that is mandated with ensuring that the islands (all of them) are not disadvantaged by PACER Plus. It’s a task of herculean proportions that will not be helped by the bureaucratic bickering that appears to be going on.

All of that said, the forum has great potential for progress even though its problems are many. Not least is the fact that Australian and New Zealand leaders (with a few notable exceptions) are turned out of office just as they begin to understand something of how the forum works and how its members think.

Also, the island leaders themselves tend to treat forum meetings as a chance for geopolitical display on a world stage rather than a chance to make real progress.

That doesn’t mean there has not been progress – there has been. But after 41 years the people who elect the leaders – in the cases where they’re allowed to – still watch and wonder.

What, they might ask, is it really all about?

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