Pacific Predictions: what will 2017 hold for the Pacific?

This item was first published on Devpolicy on January 11th, 2017

Pacific politics will continue to be a source of fascination and concern in 2017. There will be general elections in Papua New Guinea (polling will take place between June 24th and July 8th). In addition to the ever-present concerns about money politics, logistics, cost and security, the economic crisis that country is currently experiencing will also contribute to the prevailing environment. It is always a matter of concern if governments cannot pay their bills and these concerns are exacerbated in election years. Jitteriness was increased recently, when the O’Neill government ‘delayed’ release of the IMF Article IV assessment, which has yet to appear. Another potential flashpoint is the failure (in both Waigani and Canberra) to appropriately resolve the situation in relation to the closure of the Manus refugee-processing centre. Recent violence should be seen as a serious warning as should the increasing frustration (seen most evidently on Twitter: @pontuna2run) of Ron Knight, the current MP for Manus province.

Fiji is scheduled to hold elections during 2018 but the pre-positioning that took place last year will continue during 2017. The major opposition party SODELPA has a ‘back to the future’ leader in former coup leader Sitiveni Rabuka and he has called for opposition parties to work together in coalition to unseat the Fiji First government. The electoral system in Fiji militates against independents and, in an attempt to counter this, Roshika Deo (who contested unsuccessfully in 2014) is expected to form a new party to contest.

Further afield, there will be presidential elections in France. The results may have a ripple effect in our region in relation to the finalisation of the Noumea Accords process in New Caledonia and the participation of France in the Pacific Islands Forum, the details of which are yet to become clear.

Constitutional reform is a hot topic in several Pacific island countries. Vanuatu’s attempts to progress a whole raft of measures (largely designed to engender greater political stability) faltered in late 2016. This was because the Salwai government failed to secure the two-thirds majority needed to progress legislation further to constitutional reform committee process. Whilst there are certainly elements within the government who will want to progress this if the opportunity arises, it is possible that other issues will become and remain more pressing. Chief among them is Vanuatu’s impending relegation to the Financial Action Task Force’s ‘black list’. The referendum on constitutional reform scheduled to take place concurrently with provincial elections in March is on indefinite hold.

To our north, the Republic of the Marshall Islands will hold its first Constitutional Convention once the 45-person membership has been established. The most significant item for consideration is a proposal to move from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government. Meanwhile, in Samoa, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi is seeking to have the Constitution amended to make the Samoan state Christian, a proposal that has caused concern within the wider society.

During 2016, I suggested that the new logo for the Melanesian Spearhead Group should be the Gordian knot. As we enter a new year, the internal tussles are becoming ever more entrenched. There are several strands to this knot with the issue of membership being the one that is proving the most stubborn to shift. Despite the fact that there was no leaders’ meeting in December, the foreign ministers met in Port Vila to consider the text of membership regulations and guidelines prepared by the group’s Subcommittee on Legal and Institutional Issues. In town at the same time was a large delegation of West Papuans including Benny Wenda and other key members of the United Liberation Movement of West Papua leadership. The MSG leaders’ meeting is now pencilled in for January, to be held in Port Moresby, prompting declarations of disappointment from within the ULMWP. It is hard to see the disappointment lifting any time soon given the proposal to hold the meeting in Papua New Guinea (the ULMWP would prefer that the meeting be held in Port Vila, where they have the most support from government and civil society) and the continuing non-appearance of Fiji’s prime minister at these gatherings – last month in Port Vila he was represented by Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, the former Foreign Minister and current Minister for Defence.

There are some indications that the current chair (Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare of Solomon Islands) is looking to use the current impasse over membership as an opportunity to expand the grouping. In relation to activism around the West Papua issue, this is likely to be taken forward at global levels by the Pacific Coalition on West Papua, with Sogavare as its head. Australia has had two indications recently that its ‘nothing to do with us’ stance is wearing thin in Jakarta: the ‘request’ made to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defence Minister Marise Payne to caution the leadership of Pacific island countries to stop interference in relation to the West Papua issue and, more recently, the rupture in defence relationships.

More generally, Australia will prepare and publish its first white paper on foreign policy in 14 years, which will complement a new ‘Pacific strategy’ promised by the Prime Minister. We hope to see a detailed and nuanced approach to relationships with the Pacific island region feature prominently in this document. It presents an important opportunity to rectify previous missteps, build on what is working well and send important messages about where our region features in Australian policy thinking on diplomacy, trade, development assistance and, critically for the Pacific, labour mobility.

Tess’s past annual predictions can be found here: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 & 2016.

Photo credit: Flickr/GreensMPs


Pacific thinking & doing – September 2016

Welcome to the September newsletter

It has been a very busy month, with lots going on around our region. It has also been a busy time for TNC Pacific Consulting as I have been working with a number of clients to progress several projects.

As part of my work with the Pacific Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS) I travelled to Honiara in Solomon Islands. There, I facilitated a workshop on ‘media and the law’ for journalists, broadcasters, editors and communications specialists. It was my 3rd visit to Honiara since 2000 and a good opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new ones to add to my networks. I was reminded once again of how each Pacific island country is very distinct with its own culture, economic outlook and political environment. Investment in nuanced research and analysis will assist those who want to work in these exciting and challenging environments.

My work with Pacific Islands Trade and Invest has given me an opportunity to learn and think about alternative financing instruments that may be able to support private sector development in our region. Modalities such as impact investing are well established in other parts of the world and we can expect the Pacific to become more significant for investors looking to expand their portfolios. They and their intermediaries will benefit from investing in detailed knowledge and profiling at national, sectoral and business level.

It was great to join the Coffee & Controversy team early in the month to discuss women’s voices and representation in public life and decision-making in Vanuatu. A couple of weeks later, we discussed the importance of sport for our country.

Collaboration in Canberra

Collaboration in Canberra

Matthew Dornan and I often co-write on Pacific regionalism and usually we do that from separate countries and different time zones. But on a chilly day in September we got to sit in the same room and put together our analysis of what did (and did not) happen at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting in the Federated States of Micronesia. You can read what we had to say here and you can hear Matt discussing the issues we raised with Pacific Beat here.

The main reason for my visit to Canberra was to take part in the ‘State of the Pacific’ conference hosted by the Australian National University. It was a great opportunity to catch up with a number of my Pacific colleagues to discuss politics and more, with particular focus on what might lie ahead at the sub-regional and regional levels. My presentation was part of a panel on ‘The New Pacific Diplomacy’ and was entitled ‘MSG – is the renaissance over?’ You can see the slides from my presentation here and if you would like to hear a podcast of our panel session, you can download it here.

Pacific island leaders joined their global colleagues for the United Nations General Assembly. Prime Minister Bainimarama used his address to flag (or, more accurately, restate a shift in foreign policy for his country. I discussed the possible implications of this with Pacific Beat.


July 2016

Welcome to my round-up of happenings during July.

July 30th is Vanuatu’s birthday and this year my adopted homeland turned 36. We are still a young country with much to learn and the Independence celebrations are always a good opportunity to reflect on our journey so far and look ahead to what is coming next.


I’ve been busy working with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat to develop a discussion paper that explores the opportunities and challenges associated with the interface between regional and sub-regional structures which has given me an opportunity to further develop my thinking about these issues. I have heard a few people recently make quite glib references to how we need to ‘pool our resources’ regionally to overcome national capacity restraints or achieve cost savings. This is an issue that Matthew Dornan and I explored in some detail in this paper, which informed some of the thinking that went into the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. The take-away: it’s harder than you think.

I also helped out my friends at Pacific Advisory with a feasibility study they conducted for the government of Vanuatu on how the country can make best use of our new Convention Centre. I provided a peer review of the draft report and identified some expert inputs for the study.

I travelled to Fiji to take part in the Pacific Update convened by the Asian Development Bank, the Development Policy Centre, the ADB Institute and the University of the South Pacific. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with a bunch of people from around the region and make some new friends. I gave a presentation on the challenges facing the Melanesian Spearhead Group and you can see the slides here.

We also officially launched ‘Pacific Stories’ and it was good to see the 170 copies we had available get snapped up. You can request a copy from the Development Policy Centre or download a PDF copy here.

‘Coffee and Controversy’ is going from strength to strength and is increasingly valued by politicians, officials and others in Vanuatu as a platform to discuss the pressing issues of the day. During July I took part in discussions about populism (Brexit, the rise of Trump, etc), management of the government vehicle fleet and roads and the vexed question of taxation.

In the media, I discussed the results of the Nauru elections with Pacific Beat here, the statement of congratulations to the Nauru government issues by the SG of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat here and the creation of assistant ministers by the president of Nauru here.

Other than talking about Nauru’s politics I provided this op-ed for the Vanuatu Daily Post, further to the MSG leaders’ meeting in Honiara.

As you can see, it’s been another busy month. Please do share this update with your colleagues and associates and check out how TNC Pacific Consulting can assist you to do more and better business in the Pacific.


May 2016

Welcome to the round-up for the month of May.

Across the Coral Sea, Australia is having an election. It is a longer campaign period than is usually the case and so I am doing my best to get more coverage of Pacific island issues into the mainstream media coverage. This is not an easy task, and so far there have been mixed results. The video here is of a question that I formulated with Matthew Dornan at the Development Policy Centre in the hope of it being aired on QandA May 31st. We were unsuccessful (this time) but will continue to look for other opportunities to raise the importance of the new Australian government engaging more (and better) with this part of the world, regardless of which party wins power.

PictureMay 10th line-up for Coffee & Controversy: Dan McGarry, Tess Newton Cain, Glen Craig & Hon. Jotham Napat, Minister of Infrastructure & Public Utilities

Coffee and Controversy is gaining quite a following here in Vanuatu and of course if you are somewhere else, you don’t need to miss out because the podcasts are available to download from Soundcloud. This month, I took part in discussions on combatting corruption, statutory bodies and infrastructure plans, and taxation.

Lots of media work during May, mostly focused on foreign policy and sub-regional tensions. A press release from the office of the prime minister of Solomon Islands caused a lot of discussion among those of us who are keen MSG watchers. I discussed what it might mean with Pacific Beat

Later in the month, Vanuatu’s statement of support of China’s position on the South China Sea caused some to raise their eyebrows. However, as I discussed with both Pacific Beat and Radio New Zealand International, this should not really have come as a surprise.

During May, it was lovely to attend the re-opening of Iririki Island Resort, which had been closed since Cyclone Pam last March. The Hon Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabismasmas gave a very important speech during the opening . He congratulated the owners on their achievement and thanked them for their confidence in the destination, he assured them of the support of the government and he challenged them (and the rest of the industry) to work to make tourism in Vanuatu more inclusive, with particular focus on the tourism industry being a market for our primary producers. This item from last year examines why this is important.

That’s all for now – please do share this with your networks to spread the word about TNC Pacific Consulting.


April 2016

This month saw the launch of my new website (this is it!) and thank you to all who have provided feedback and support.

It’s been great to work with my friends at the Pacific Leadership Program. We are developing some really interesting and important knowledge projects that will help them to communicate and share their research into supporting women into positions of political leadership in Vanuatu. This builds on a literature review I prepared a couple of years ago for the Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development Program, which you can read here.

Looking to the development of Pacific policy responses, I collaborated with Dr Anna Powles and Mr Jose Sousa-Santos to prepare a submission to the Specialist Subcommittee on Regionalism under the Framework for Pacific Regionalism. Ours was one of more than 40 that were received. Our submission is entitled ‘Pacific Disaster Response & Coordination Unit’ and you can read it here.

On Coffee & Controversy during April, we have discussed the opportunities and challenges associated with introducing income tax into Vanuatu and foreign policy.

I contributed to coverage by Pacific Beat of the growing tensions within the Melanesian Spearhead Group over the appointment of a new Director General to the secretariat, funding problems and controversy as to membership relating to the United Movement for the Liberation of West Papua (UMLWP) and Indonesia.

I provided some background material to Daniel Flitton of The Age for this item about ongoing concerns about the quality of governance on Nauru, with particular focus on the decision of Westpac bank to close its accounts with the government of that country.

It was great to catch up with Dr Colin Tukuitonga, the Director General of the Pacific Community whilst he was here in Vanuatu. We talked about a number of things which was a great opportunity to revisit some of the things we discussed in this interview for Pacific Conversations, back in 2014.

I enjoyed taking part in a webinar that focused on the use of social media in disaster response and management. It reinforced for me some of the issues I identified in this item I wrote further to the passage of Cyclone Pam during March last year.

Please have a look around the website to find out more about TNC Pacific Consulting and how my expertise can be of use to you.


Regionalism, sub-regionalism and women’s empowerment: an interview with Dame Meg Taylor

This item was first published by Tess Newton Cain & Dame Meg Taylor on Devpolicy on March 8th, 2015

During her first visit to Vanuatu as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS), Dame Meg Taylor took some time to chat with Tess Newton Cain for Pacific Conversations. You can listen to a podcast of their conversation here and read the transcript here. For the highlights of what they discussed, read on…

I started by asking Dame Meg what she thought were the key objectives for Pacific regionalism in the next few years. She stated that, from the perspective of the PIFS, she saw the future of regionalism as based on the Framework for Pacific Regionalism [pdf], which was adopted by leaders at the 2014 Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Majuro:

…the key emphasis is about changing the paradigm of the way development is done in the region, where the leaders of the Pacific are the ones that make the decision as to what are the regional priorities.

The Secretary General made it clear that she wants to ensure that the Framework for Pacific Regionalism is an impetus for action:

The task that the Pacific Islands Forum has and the CROP agencies will have is to make sure we are implementing that. But right now, it’s rolling out that process, and actually implementing a report that was done in the Pacific rather than shelving it and hoping that somebody will write another one.

In a definitive display of positive thinking, Dame Meg advised me that she did not want to predict obstacles to achieving these objectives. That is not to say that she is unaware of the challenging nature of the endeavour:

I think that grappling with these issues, that’s going to be tougher than we all think. You don’t just pluck a topic out of thin air. We’ve got to make sure that it’s a regional issue, and not a regional issue for some and not for others.

I moved on by asking Dame Meg what she would like the PIFS to look like at the completion of her three-year term. Whilst there is a need for organisational reform, her focus is on the present and the future rather than the past:

I’m looking at an institution that I’ve inherited, end of 2014, now 2015. It’s amazing how dynamics change in this region very quickly, and what we’ve been asked to do in terms of implementation is going to require skill sets that can deliver, be responsive to what the leaders want.

Again, Dame Meg made it clear that she intended to devote the bulk of her time and energy into putting the decisions of Pacific leaders into action:

…my main focus in terms of institutional outcome is to ensure that the Pacific Framework is truly implemented and accepted, not just by the leadership and the CROP agencies, but by the donor agencies. That when the leaders of the Pacific say “these are the four priorities for the issues in the region”, that donor agencies get behind it.

Dame Meg was very candid in her acknowledgement of concerns within the region about the relevance of the PIF and its secretariat, but she is very clear that the PIF has an important role to play within the wider context of regionalism:

There’s a debate that the Pacific Islands Forum is becoming irrelevant, that it’s not needed. I want to be able to assure the people of the Pacific, because when they were asked by Sir Mekere about regionalism they responded that they needed a regional organisation that represented their countries. And the Pacific Islands Forum is one that represents the independent states of the Pacific. And that’s a very precious mandate for me. And we’ve got to make sure that it is protected but also effective.

When Dame Meg was appointed to the position of Secretary General, much was made of the fact that she is the first woman to have held that position. I asked her what she thought was needed in order to support professional women to take on positions of regional leadership in the Pacific. Her response was incisive:

I think we’ve got to be supported by our own gender and supported by men in our communities for the intelligence and the contribution that we can make as individuals… I’ve heard this from young women in PNG, that some of the areas that they feel they can’t make progress is because many of us who are the older women are making sure that they don’t have those opportunities.

Dame Meg advised me that she hopes to draw on her experience of mentoring young professional women within the World Bank Group to do the same whilst she is Secretary General of the PIFS.

Returning to regionalism, I asked Dame Meg for her assessment of the regional and sub-regional landscape as it currently stands, and how she thought it might evolve in the future. She was particularly keen to discuss the opportunities offered by sub-regionalism further to her meeting with the Melanesian Spearhead Group Secretariat:

I think that what we’ve got to be open to as a regional organisation is that there are some things that a sub-regional can do and do them well. There are other things and issues that a regional organisation has to have responsibility for and take leadership on. And to be able to exchange ideas and not to be afraid of it.

Dame Meg Taylor has taken on an important and challenging role. The next three years will be very busy for her and the organisation she leads.

Dame Meg Taylor is Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.


Another review of the Pacific regional architecture is neither warranted nor appropriate

This item was first published by Matthew Dornan & Tess Newton Cainon on Devpolicy on November 11th, 2014

The joint announcement by Fiji and Australia that the Pacific regional architecture should be reviewed has taken both the Pacific islands region and Australian foreign affairs establishment by surprise.

We can only speculate about the origins and underlying purpose of the announced review. Very little detail has yet to be made available, save that Australia will host a meeting of regional leaders (the exact composition of that group yet to be determined) in Sydney in February 2015. But whatever the trigger for this announcement, it raises some important questions about the future of regionalism and, more particularly, the respective roles of Australia and Fiji within it.

Is there either the need or appetite for such a review, given the recent completion of a series of reviews with focus on and implications for the regional architecture?

There is much that remains unclear but what is evident is that the ‘review’ (as described in the Fiji media) or ‘discussion’ (as described on the Australian Foreign Minister’s website) has arisen amidst efforts by Australia to normalise relations with Fiji. The exchange of high commissioners has been announced, and Fiji will be offered 100 places within Australia’s Seasonal Worker Program. Fiji will also be incorporated into the New Colombo Plan, meaning that Australian students will soon study at the University of the South Pacific. Defence ties are also being re-established.

Fiji’s involvement in the regional architecture meanwhile remains unclear. Its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum (the region’s premier political body) in 2009 was lifted recently following elections in which the former head of the Fiji military (and 2006 coup leader) won office. But Fiji has refused to rejoin the Forum, stating that it will only consider doing so if Australia and New Zealand leave the body that they helped to establish. The announced review of the regional architecture is most likely a bid by Australia to appease the Fiji Government – although it is not at all clear that Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama and Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola will back down from their opposition to rejoining a Forum that includes Australia and New Zealand as members.

Any review of the regional architecture, of course, brings with it opportunities. The Pacific Institute of Public Policy has welcomed the initiative as a means to “effect the necessary reforms” that will “reforge the regional vision and establish the relevant architecture to secure it”. Such a position reflects a widespread view that regionalism has done little to improve the lot of Pacific island populations (a view that to a great extent is true, although not universally so). The Australian Parliamentary Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Brett Mason, recently reiterated that point when he said about Pacific regionalism that “things can’t remain as they are.” If the review does generate a broad-based political mandate for enhancing regionalism, it would certainly be a win for all.

But we are sceptical that the review that has been announced will fulfil this purpose, for a number of reasons.

First, there is the issue of timing. In the last 10 years, there have been myriad reviews of regional organisations and plans/processes. These include the 2013 Independent Review of the Pacific Plan for Regional Integration and Cooperation (the ‘Pacific Plan); the 2012 reviews of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (discussed here); the 2007 Regional Integration Framework [pdf] (RIF) review, which led to the merger of a number of major regional agencies; and the 2005 review of the regional architecture commissioned by Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS). Surely this is overkill? The purpose of regionalism cannot primarily be to review regionalism.

Of these review activities, the most recent and most significant was the 2013 Review of the Pacific Plan, undertaken by Sir Mekere Morauta and his team and captured in a report [pdf] released less than 12 months ago. That review included detailed analysis of what the regionalism project has been and could be in the future (including work we did assessing pooled service delivery in the region). Its key product, the Framework for Pacific Regionalism[pdf], was endorsed by leaders at the Palau meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum.

The PIFS is currently implementing key activities arising from the 2013 Review of the Pacific Plan, including the rationalisation of regional meetings (a specific request from Pacific island leaders). Regional organisations such as the University of the South Pacific, SPC and the PIFS have only recently implemented recommendations from their comprehensive reviews, and in some cases, this process is ongoing. It comes as a surprise then that another review of the regional architecture should be announced.
It is unclear whether there is much appetite for another review in the region, with the implications of past reviews still being worked through and implemented by regional bodies and the Forum. Alf Simpson, former Director of the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission (SOPAC – now subsumed within the SPC), has said in response to the announcement that:

Time after time they keep asking the same questions hoping for a different response. Even worse the focus on the organisations only results in minor efficiency gains and the question of effectiveness is never addressed.

Transform Aqorau, the CEO of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement office, has labelled another review of the regional architecture as “ill advised, untimely and an overreaction.”
It is certainly significant that the announcement has been met with silence by most regional organisations (regional organisations, after all, would be unlikely to directly criticise the foreign ministers of Australia and Fiji). The one exception is the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, which has welcomed the initiative, although on the proviso that “the discussion comes up with some useful way forward”. Importantly, there has been no request for a review by the countries that have the greatest stake in regionalism: the smaller island states of the Pacific (a group that does not include the larger countries of Fiji and PNG, nor the developed economies of Australia and New Zealand).

This is cause for further concern. It is absurd that Australia and Fiji should bilaterally announce a review of the regional architecture with no consideration for the views of other Pacific island countries. After all, Fiji refuses to be a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, while Australia is not a member of the Melanesian Spearhead Group or the Pacific Islands Development Forum. How can either country seek to review regional arrangements to which they are not party? The meeting in February will presumably include other Pacific island heads of government, but the fact remains that the need to hold a discussion was announced by Fiji and Australia without the involvement of other leaders.

The announcement may help to re-establish the bilateral relationship between Australia and Fiji, although there is no guarantee that it will succeed in bringing Fiji back into the Forum’s fold. But it is disappointing in terms of Australia’s engagement with the broader region. Whilst in opposition, Julie Bishop promised a better engagement with the region should her party come into government. What we have seen since last October is a selective approach to developing some bilateral relationships (most notably with PNG and Fiji) and a disregard for progressing regional relationships. Australia has been noticeable by its perceived absence in key forums where issues that matter to Pacific island countries (especially the smaller states) have been discussed. The continued inertia of the PACER Plus negotiations has arisen, at least in part, from the apparent inability of Australian (and New Zealand) officials to take the concerns of Pacific negotiators on board. And the Seasonal Workers’ Program remains a source of disappointment to many.

There are plenty of challenges ahead for the future of Pacific regionalism and visionary leadership is required if they are to be successfully navigated. A review of the regional architecture, announced by two countries less than 12 months after the completion of another review, is far from visionary.

Photo credit: Fiji Ministry of Information


MSG manoeuvres: What next for West Papua?

This item was first published on The Interpreter on 16th July 2014

It hasn’t taken long for the West Papua National Council for Liberation (WPNCL) and other pro-independence groups to to respond to Melanesian Spearhead Group’s (MSG) recent announcement on the WPNCL’s membership application, made during the MSG summit in Port Moresby. And the response can be characterised as something of a ‘good news, bad news’ story.

The good news was that the WPNCL, with strong support from Marcus Haluk (Chairman for the Working Group of the all West Papua pro-independence organisations), announced that a conference of reconciliation would be held in Port Vila, Vanuatu at the end of  August.

The aim of this meeting is to put forward an application for membership of the MSG (here’s a primer on the Melanesian Spearhead  Group) by an umbrella group of all West Papuan people, as recommended by the MSG leaders in Port Moresby. The conference organisers have expressed their confidence that this new application will be ready by the end of the year.

The conference is being supported by the Vanuatu Council of Churches, the National Council of Chiefs and the government of Vanuatu. The conference chair is Pastor Alain Nafuki, who has already expressed his hope that the government of Indonesia will assist in facilitating the travel of delegates from West Papua to Port Vila. (This may be something of a vain hope as, despite what others may say about the importance of West Papua to Indonesia’s ‘Look East’ policy overall, there is no evidence to suggest that Jakarta will be a willing contributor to a pro-independence convocation being held in another country.)

The bad news is that hard on the heels of this announcement came the news that pro-Indonesia West Papua Autonomy campaigners, Franz Albert Joku and Nicholas Simion Messet, would not be invited to said conference.

This is not surprising, given the longstanding antipathy felt towards pro-Indonesia Melanesians by those who have advocated, lobbied and fought for the independence of West Papua for more than 50 years. However, this decision means the  conference may fail to meet the criteria contained in the Port Moresby communiqué, which states that MSG leaders…

Agreed to invite all groups to form an inclusive and united umbrella group in consultation with Indonesia to work on submitting a fresh application…(Emphasis added.)

Meanwhile, the government of Vanuatu has stated its intention to continue its lobbying for the self-determination of the people of West Papua through UN processes. Despite having accepted the group-think in Port Moresby, the Natuman government is maintaining the stance that sets Vanuatu apart from the other sovereign state members of the MSG.

Of course, Vanuatu has little to lose , as it no longer has a defence cooperation relationship with Indonesia and there is nowhere near the level of Indonesian investment in Vanuatu as is the case in other MSG countries, notably Fiji and PNG. And, perhaps more significantly, Vanuatu does not have PNG’s  financial resources to influence fellow members through provision of development assistance. Nonetheless, Vanuatu got the West Papua issue on to the agenda of the MSG and will undoubtedly do everything to ensure it remains there for as long as is needed or can be sustained.

Photo credit: Flickr/AK Rockefeller


Melanesian leaders meet on West Papua

This item was first published on The Interpreter on 27th June 2014

There is a lot going on in Port Moresby just now. People are protesting on the streets (or trying to), court cases are being adjourned, anti-corruption task forces are being disbanded and formed, final preparations are being made for the fifth Melanesian Festival of Arts & Culture.

And in between, the leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group met yesterday for a special leaders’ summit (final communique here). Vanuatu’s prime minister Joe Natuman attended; his first foreign trip since taking office. He turned down an invitation from New Zealand soon after becoming PM, preferring instead to spend time with his constituents on Tanna, in the south of the country. Furthermore, neither he nor any of his government attended last week’s Pacific Islands Development Forum in Nadi. His participation in this week’s Moresby meeting fits with his ‘back to basics’ approach to government and its focus on the importance of cultural values. Solomon Islands’ prime minister Gordon Darcy Lilo is also in attendance, as is Victor Tutugoro of the Front de Libération Nationale Kanak et Socialiste (FLNKS) in his capacity as chair.

Noticeable by his absence is the interim prime minister of Fiji, although his country has sent a  100+ contingent to the Melanesian Arts festival.

There are two items of particular interest on the leaders’ agenda. One is a paper relating to the appointment of the new Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. So maybe, contrary to what I said last week, the leaders will indeed come to an agreement on which of the three strong Melanesian candidates they will support for that position. That would appear to be the desire of Prime Minister Peter O’Neill of PNG. He has been meeting with Prime Minister Lilo of Solomon Islands in an attempt to consolidate support behind Dame Meg Taylor, PNG’s preferred candidate.

The second item is more contentious. The MSG leaders gave further consideration to the issue of membership for the  West Papua National Council for Liberation (WPNCL), which was first raised in Noumea last year. The statement by Peter O’Neill (see clip above) conveys the consensus position after yesterday’s meeting. It betrays underlying divisions on this issue among the MSG membership.

Vanuatu is recognised as the country that is most vocal and steadfast in support of self-determination for West Papua. Both Solomon Islands and the FLNKS generally align with Vanuatu. But Fiji and PNG are more ambivalent.

The position put forward by Peter O’Neill does little to advance the cause of the WPNCL becoming an MSG member. In fact it may well set it back. O’Neill’s statement called for consultations with Indonesia, but the WPNCL is opposed to dialogue with the Indonesian Government. O’Neill also wants the application to be ‘representative of all Melanesians living in Indonesia’, though practically, the restrictions on access to West Papua will make it difficult for the WPNCL to come to a shared position with other pro-independence groups.

The fact that O’Neill is the one who made the statement (ostensibly in his position as co-chair) is a clear signal as to where the lead in MSG thinking is coming from.

Photo credit: Flickr/AK Rockefeller


PIF: New Secretary-General will have a full agenda

This item was first published on The Interpreter on June 20th, 2014

At their forthcoming meeting in Palau, the leaders of the Pacific Island Forum will appoint a successor to Tuiloma Neroni Slade, the Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS).

This is the most senior and high profile regional bureaucratic office, and strictly speaking it is the ‘turn’ of the Micronesian countries to have one of their own take on the role. But they have indicated a willingness to cede in favour of a candidate from a Melanesian country. This seems to reflect what Wadan Narsey has termed a tilt in economic and political power to the west of the region.

Three candidates have emerged. Fiji has nominated Ambassador Kaliopate Tavola, Solomon Islands has endorsed Dr Jimmie Rogers and PNG’s recommendation is Dame Meg Taylor. There has been some disappointment but no real surprise about the fact that the Melanesian countries could not come together to identify a preferred candidate. PNG’s foreign minister has campaigned for Dame Meg among other Melanesian countries, but it is not easy to see who, other than possibly Vanuatu, is likely to be open to that type of lobbying.

So, who are these people?

Kaliopate Tavola has had a long and varied career comprising work in the private sector, many years of experience as a senior diplomat and a minister in the Fiji government between 2000 and 2006. More recently he led the eminent persons’ review of the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Dr Jimmie Rodgers recently completed his tenure as Director General of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). He originally qualified as a medical practitioner and served in senior public service positions in Solomon Islands before moving to SPC as a senior administrator. Dame Meg Taylor DBE was appointed Vice President and Compliance Advisor Ombudsman for the International Finance Corporation and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency of the World Bank Group in 1999. She is a lawyer by training and has extensive experience as a diplomat for her country.

They are all good candidates. The prospect of a female SG has certain attractions, although the PIFS is no stranger to having women in senior positions, with both of the Deputy Secretary General posts currently occupied by women (Andie Fong Toy and Cristelle Pratt). For many, it is hoped that a change in leadership will create a critical juncture that facilitates the secretariat becoming more accessible, engaged and responsive.

And what does the next three years hold for whoever takes on this role — is it a golden opportunity or a poisoned chalice? There are a number of key matters on the agenda for the new SG. Further to the review of the Pacific Plan undertaken during 2013, the PIFS will be guiding the development and (presumed) implementation of a new framework for Pacific regionalism. Possibly more contentiously, further to the review of the Pacific Plan, will we now see the official publication of the 2012 review of the PIFS, and will we see the PIFS address the trenchant criticisms it contains?

The PIFS finds itself caught up in a somewhat turbulent period for regional architecture (although that depends on what sort of timeframe you adopt). The Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) has its second annual meeting this week in Nadi, which indicates that as a regional player it intends to stay. This Forum evolved from Fiji’s ‘Engaging the Pacific’ dialogues that were instigated by the interim government in Suva after its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum in 2009. While it is not expected to pose a major threat to the Pacific Islands Forum, there is no doubt that the two secretariats are going to have to work out some sort of accommodation, not least because they are both domiciled in Suva.

Meanwhile, the Melanesian Spearhead Group is leading the rise and rise of sub-regionalism. Its members (and other sub-regional groupings, whether already in existence or yet to emerge) will come together around policy issues that are meaningful to them. Rhetorically, the review of the Pacific Plan embraces sub-regionalism. However, the current draft of the framework for Pacific regionalism (prepared by the PIFS and currently being revised, further to consultation with member countries) suggests a technocratic process for selecting activities to be progressed (eg. in relation to pooled service delivery). This is not a threat to sub-regional activity as such, but the political realities are that countries that wish to work together on a given issue will do so without reference to a PIFS-centric process such as this. This is part of the changing nature of cooperation and collaboration in the region; countries will exercise choice as to whether they want to work in a sub-regional or regional grouping depending on the nature and political relevance of a given policy issue.

And then of course there is Fiji. The interim prime minister has advised that, should he retain power after the 17 September election, he does not see Fiji rejoining the Pacific Islands Forum unless Australia and New Zealand leave and/or there are dramatic changes to how the Forum and its secretariat are structured and organised.
So, whoever becomes the new SG will have plenty to do in their three-year tenure. To succeed, they will need many qualities, including a healthy measure of good luck.