Let’s get realistic about regionalism

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 7th 2017

Last week I was in Fiji, working on a research project as part of a joint ANU/USP team. For a number of reasons I spent a bit of time thinking and talking about regionalism in the Pacific.

It’s a tricky topic. Some people find it very boring. And if you are allergic to acronyms, regionalism is best avoided that’s for sure. The term ‘regionalism’ can mean different things to different people. For some people it is all about trade issues, others are focused on security and others talk only about pooled services.

But the most common reaction to Pacific regionalism is probably frustration. At the national level, policy makers and politicians say they are frustrated because regional organisations do not offer anything that helps with their domestic agendas. Within the regionalism machinery, officials bemoan the fact that delegations have agendas that are only focused on nationalistic concerns.

 So, should we call the whole thing off? One of the particular characteristics of regionalism in our part of the world is that it is voluntary. There is no grand political bargain such as exists (for now) among the countries that came together to form the European Union. We don’t have a Pacific parliament that can pass laws, which bind member countries. Pacific regionalism is more like a club, whose membership is voluntary.

So if Vanuatu (or any other Pacific island country) doesn’t want to take part in the regionalism project they don’t have to. The officials don’t need to go to meetings, same for the ministers and we don’t need to worry about paying (or not) our subscriptions to various regional agencies and organisations.

But we remain members, we send our officials and ministers to meetings (the Forum Economic Ministers’ Meeting took place in Suva this week) and we contribute to the costs of regionalism and the machinery it has spawned. So if we are going to remain members, how can we change the landscape so that the levels of frustration are reduced and the available opportunities can be better identified and acted upon?

The starting point is information. At the national level, we need to be better informed about what regional organisations and activities mean for us. This needs to go beyond ‘it’s all a waste of time’ to actually learn more about what regional priorities have been decided and how they are being progressed. What is the Framework for Pacific Regionalism? What does Pacific Islands Trade and Invest do? What are the implications of signing up to PACER Plus (or not?)

These are important questions that are significant at the national level as well as regionally. They reflect decisions made by our political leaders and they occupy the time and energy of our officials. If we are going to make sensible decisions about whether to take part in regional activities, we need to have access to information that informs how we answer them. We should expect representatives of regional organisations to be engaging with national media organisations when they visit member countries. We would hope that our national media outlets ask questions of these organisations about what they are doing and why it is important or relevant for Vanuatu to be involved.

In addition, those who represent their countries in regional forums need to have a better understanding of what regional cooperation is. It is not appropriate in all circumstances. But in some situations working together may have something to offer whether in terms of accessing climate finance or sharing the costs of promoting our region as a tourism destination to new markets. Those who take part in regional decision-making need to have a very clear as to what their national position is, there is no doubt about that. In addition they need to develop a sense of where there are more opportunities for everyone by coming together as a region. They need to feed back to organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat what advice is needed to inform this.

There are serious and ongoing concerns about the state of regionalism in the Pacific it is true. And there are plenty of pressing concerns for politicians and policy makers in their own backyards without looking for things to do regionally. But the fact is that we joined the club voluntarily and if we are in it, then we should be looking for opportunities to make the best of it.

 

Pacific islands thinking & doing – August 2016

During August I finalised a piece of research commissioned by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat to inform their work around enhancing the interface between regional and sub-regional organisations. This reflects my own interest in Pacific regionalism and sub-regionalism and the growing importance of this topic for Pacific politicians and policy makers. Whilst it is largely the case that local and national issues dominate the agenda in Port Vila, Honiara and our other capital cities, there are key conversations that require our leaders to adopt a sub-regional or regional perspective. This will be to the forefront over the next week or so as our leaders meet in Pohnpei for the 47th Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meeting.

I also collaborated with my friends at PACMAS to deliver a 3 day workshop for journalists in Vanuatu. The focus was on court reporting and coverage of legal issues more generally. The workshop gave us a space in which we could look at how media professionals can contribute to this very important aspect of public debate in our country. It coincided with a very high profile case in the Supreme Court in which a number of men were tried for a number of charges arising out of the alleged assault of a young woman further to her having posted comments on Facebook that were critical of the behaviour of taxi drivers. The workshop was very well received and we are now working towards delivering something similar in Solomon Islands.

PACMAS workshop in Vanuatu on 'Media and the Law'

PACMAS workshop in Vanuatu on ‘Media and the Law’

During August, my family and I visited Tanna, an island in the south of Vanuatu. My work tends to be very urban-focused so it’s always good to spend even a short time in rural areas. After all, that is where the majority of Pacific island people live.

In rural Tanna 5 litres of diesel costs AU$14.30

In rural Tanna 5 litres of diesel costs AU$14.30

I often meet people whoa re new to working in the region who express their surprise and horror about how much it costs to get things done in places like Tanna. This photo provides a small but telling example of why that is.

An ongoing project I am part of is working with a team from Palladium to develop an integrated thematic roadmap to guide the future work of Pacific Women. We are focusing on the particular area of women’s economic empowerment. I am contributing by way of analysis of the particular context of Pacific economics and the realities faced by women and men in terms of employment, financial inclusion and business opportunities.

On Coffee and Controversy, I joined in discussions about the development of cruise ship tourism in Vanuatu, a ‘pick and mix‘ of things, and tourism more generally.

For the Devpolicy blog, I met with Dalsie Baniala for ‘Pacific Conversations‘. We discussed some really important and interesting things relating to the importance of regulation for telecommunications in Vanuatu and across the Pacific island region more generally.

As we move into September this is a key time for thinking about how to document this year’s activities and share learning and impact with others. Investing in this contributes to the important activity of knowledge sharing and brokering in and for our region.


 

What next for Nauru?

This item was first published on Devpolicy on October 9th, 2015

The ongoing governance crises in Nauru were noticeable by their absence from the communiqué released at the end of the meeting of Pacific Island Forum leaders in Port Moresby last month. This is certainly disappointing if not very surprising. The media covered the decision by the government of New Zealand to suspend its aid to the justice sector of Nauru. This decision was important in terms of its timing and also a significant indicator that this is one area where there is appetite to demarcate a policy difference between Wellington and Canberra. On the part of the Nauruan government, this was met with little concern and the impact in terms of operations within the justice sector appears to have been minimal. The Minister for Justice, David Adeang (who is also the Minister for Finance), has more than sufficient funds available by virtue of Australia’s regional processing centre to make up any shortfall that may arise.

From numerous conversations and exchanges I have had with sources close to what is happening on Nauru, it is clear that the rule of law and democratic governance is deteriorating. This is a matter of concern to many within the region and needs to be given appropriate attention, not only to protect the rights and freedoms of the citizens of that country but also to ensure that the region as a whole remains one where democratic government continues to be the prevailing norm.

The government of Nauru has, via its official Twitter feed (managed by the Brisbane based public relations firm Mercer PR), made much of the fact that the country has a full complement of judiciary, including a Chief Justice (Ratu Joni Madraiwiwi of Fiji) and a Resident Magistrate (Emma Garo of Solomon Islands). There is nothing to lead anyone to believe that these jurists are making decisions at the behest of the executive. However, there are certainly concerns that within the executive (and particularly on the part of Minister Adeang and the Secretary for Justice, Lionel Angimea) actions are being taken that serve to distort the processes and procedures normally associated with an observance of the rule of law. These have included manipulation of visa regulations that make it difficult for defendants and litigants to secure appropriate legal representation.

More recently, Minister Adeang has advised several senior citizens of Nauru that pension payments and access to concessional travel have been withdrawn. This is as a result of a Cabinet decision, which was based on their having participated in what the government calls ‘riots’ during June of this year. None of these people have been charged with riot or any other criminal offence and they have not appeared before any court. This ‘pension’ scheme has no statutory basis and the payments are discretionary, which is what allows them to be discontinued by the Cabinet without having to worry about a legal challenge on the part of those affected.

These are some of the most recent worrying occurrences on Nauru that can be added to previous ones that have been documented herehere and here. Which leads us to the following questions:

What, if anything, can or should be done?

Who should do it?

A number of references have already been made to the application of the Biketawa Declaration in a situation such as has been unfolding for some time in Nauru. The Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Dame Meg Taylor, has cited it in her comments and has indicated that she does not expect there to be a Forum-led intervention in Nauru but that the Secretariat stands ready to provide Nauru with any assistance in relation to governance that may be required. It is too simplistic to say that the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat is failing in its mandate to ensure regional peace, security and governance. Whilst it is certainly true that it is the regional body with primary responsibility in this space, it remains the case that the secretariat cannot be expected to act either in isolation or without the political backing of the Forum leaders.

The current administration of Nauru continues to demonstrate an insularity and resistance to anything it perceives as an attack on its national sovereignty. This is reflected in the blocking of Twitter accounts (particularly those of international journalists) that express criticisms of the government of Nauru. Opportunities to influence decision-making are not plentiful whether on Nauru itself or outside the country. However, there are options available which merit consideration here.
The Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat needs to maintain a watching brief in relation to governance on Nauru, further to the visit to that country by the Secretary General. The issues that have been discussed here did not garner any consideration at the recent leaders meeting in Port Moresby because they did not feature in the ‘Framework for Pacific Regionalism’ processes that determined the agenda and were not raised by any of the leaders as a matter for discussion. They were, however, raised at the recent Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Sydney and it may be that this is where the continuing engagement should take place as facilitated by the Forum Secretariat.

It is generally the case that Pacific Island Forum members are reluctant to be seen to be critical of each other and this may well constrain individual leaders from seeking to influence the Nauru leadership to change course. However, as we have seen, Pacific island leaders will criticise other member countries in relation to issues about which they feel sufficiently strongly or in circumstances that they perceive will further their interests.

There are some Pacific Island Forum members that could see meaningful engagement with Nauru to restore democratic governance and the rule of law as an issue that could merit deviation from the norm.

Papua New Guinea as the new chair of the Forum is well placed to make this issue one that provides more clear evidence of that country’s desire to be viewed as a regional leader. It is not necessary for PM O’Neill to go it alone in this regard; he can call on the support of the Troika (comprising the current chair, immediate past chair (Palau) and incoming chair (Federated States of Micronesia)).

Very recently, Australia has declared that it is seeking a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (2018-2020) with this manifesto:

Should we be elected, our focus would be on empowering women and girls, strengthening governance and democratic institutions, promoting freedom, freedom of expression, and advancing human rights for all.
Australia would be at the forefront of efforts to hold to account those responsible for human rights abuses, and to build more effective preventative and accountability measures.

The situation on Nauru provides the government of Australia with a very real opportunity to demonstrate to the global community how it is able to engage meaningfully and beneficially in a country within its sphere of influence. One where governance and democratic institutions are being undermined, where freedom of expression is denied and where there is a strong and pressing need to hold those responsible for human rights abuses to account. However, the nature of the relationship between Australia and Nauru centred on the use of the latter as a regional processing centre for asylum seekers by the former, means that Canberra is unlikely to be very active in this regard.

A similar opportunity presents itself to the government of Fiji, which is also seeking an appointment to the UN Human Rights Council (2018-2020) on a similar platform [pdf]:

Dedication to basic human rights is the foundation of democracy. No democracy can survive if the rights of each person are not sacred, if the state fails to protect – or even works to undermine – the individual’s ability to think and believe and worship as he or she chooses.

Both Australia and Fiji have very close linkages with the executive leadership of Nauru. Australia is a primary provider of finance flows to the Nauruan government (including more than $600,000 in visa fees per month) and Fijian nationals occupy many important posts within the Nauruan bureaucracy. It is no doubt a matter of concern to the Fijian leadership that these public servants are susceptible to being placed under considerable pressure to act contrary to the rule of law and democratic principles faced with the knowledge that their continued employment is at the whim of the Nauruan cabinet.

Many Forum member countries, Fiji and Papua New Guinea included, have struggled and are currently struggling with governance challenges of their own. This may mean that they have limited room to move, but they are also able to approach this complex and sensitive issue from a starting point of achieving and maintaining democracy as a shared challenge.

I am the first to acknowledge that rectifying a situation such as the one that has arisen in Nauru is neither straightforward nor easily achievable. However, simply looking the other way is indefensible.

 

The Post Moresby Forum: a reframed Pacific regionalism

 

This item was first published by Matthew Dornan & Tess Newton Cain on Devpolicy on September 30th, 2015

The political machinations of the recent meeting of Pacific Islands Forum Leaders dominated the media headlines over the last two weeks, with tensions around climate change and West Papua, as well as the future of Australia and New Zealand in the Forum, receiving considerable coverage.

A number of other important developments were sidelined in the media commentary as a result, including leaders’ decisions on three other agenda items: cervical cancer treatment, fisheries management, and ICT development. Importantly, the impact of the new Framework for Pacific Regionalism [pdf] on proceedings prior to and at the meeting has received scant attention, as has the Hiri Declaration. These are the focus of this post.
It surprised many the extent to which the Framework for Pacific Regionalism (the framework) flew under the radar at the leaders’ meeting in Port Moresby: the first time the framework has been in place. Although the framework itself did not receive much attention, it was its operation that created the agenda for what was discussed in Port Moresby.

The framework was developed as a result of the Review of the Pacific Plan in 2013, and aims to better focus PIF Leaders’ meetings by reducing the number of issues placed on the agenda for discussion. Its establishment, socialisation and implementation has been the paradigm for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat under the new leadership of its Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor, and it is an agenda that she and her team have pursued with vigour. It is worth discussing the framework in some detail, given its implications for the outcomes of both the recent and future leaders’ meetings.

Three key objectives provide the underpinning of the framework:

  • to broaden the conversation on regionalism beyond that of CROP agencies, which were (often correctly) perceived to dominate priorities under the Pacific Plan.
  • to ensure regional initiatives had a sound rationale, something sometimes lacking in the past.
  • to ‘bring back’ the political dimension of regionalism, which many argued had been lost under the technocratic Pacific Plan.

This last point was emphasised in the opening remarks of Dame Meg Taylor to the Forum Officials Committee meeting, which preceded the leaders’ meeting. In her statement, Dame Meg Taylor stated:

“I reiterate the responsibility of this Committee, as articulated in the Framework and approved by Leaders, to ensure that ‘politically sensitive and major regional issues and initiatives are the focus of the Leaders’ meeting’.”

The operation of the framework has been both devised and rolled out since Dame Meg Taylor took over as Secretary-General. One of the most significant planks of its implementation is to provide an opportunity for a wider range of voices (whether individual or institutional) to contribute to determining how the regionalism project should be taken forward. Under the framework, the Forum Secretariat issued a call for public submissions of proposed regional initiatives in the lead up to the leaders’ meeting.
These were assessed by a newly appointed Specialist Sub-Committee on Regionalism (SSCR), and five were selected for the consideration of leaders, on the basis of a series of tests. These tests ensure that proposals considered by leaders are requiring of a regional approach, generate net benefits, and do not impinge on sovereignty, the market, or duplicate existing activities. The SSCR process is key to the new framework, and is important to meeting all three underpinning objectives identified above.

What was its impact in preparation for the leaders’ meeting and in Port Moresby?

The SSCR process has been successful in broadening the conversation on regionalism this year. The process has generated considerable public interest, more than was expected, with a total of 68 submissions received from NGOs, regional bodies, universities, CROP agencies, and Forum member country governments. The SSCR referred a number of these to appropriate ministerial meetings for decisions as envisaged by the framework, again as a way of ensuring that the leaders’ discussions were focused on only those issues that would be in line with the underpinning objectives. (These were a joint position on climate change, West Papua, a regional response to cervical cancer, better fisheries management, and ICT development).

Assessment of these proposals against the various tests was designed to ensure that proposals had a clear rationale. It is hard to judge the impact of these tests as the basis for the SSCR’s decision on the five proposals presented to leaders were not made public (although the Secretariat has published the template [pdf] that was used to review submissions prior to their consideration by the SSCR). Indeed, very little detail was provided about what was actually placed on the agenda of leaders. This has detracted from achievement of the first aim, and is discussed more below.

The third objective, to ‘bring back’ the political dimension of regionalism, was certainly achieved at the recent Forum Leaders’ meeting. This was in part due to the SSCR process, which both selected topical issues and limited leaders’ discussion to five agenda items, thereby facilitating discussion (To put this in perspective, the communiqué [pdf] from last year’s meeting reflects a much more unwieldy agenda). However, the context within which the meeting took place, in the lead up to the UNFCCC negotiations, was no doubt also a factor.

So, what should we make of the meeting? And what was the impact of the new Framework for Pacific Regionalism?

There can be no doubt that the leaders’ meeting focused on matters of political importance. (In turn, the Hiri Declaration replaces the 2004 Auckland Declaration as the basis for political support for the regional project, and includes specific mention of the Pacific Islands Forum and the Framework for Pacific Regionalism.)

Somewhat ironically, it was the very success of the framework in ‘bringing back’ politics that highlighted differences between Forum member states on key issues. This was most evident in the rift between Australia/New Zealand and Forum island countries on climate change. But it was also evident on West Papua, with countries like PNG opposed to the more assertive recommendations of countries like Solomon Islands. (It is worth noting that some other potential subjects for discussion that are equally controversial were not included in the agenda, such as the worrying political developments in Nauru).

The other agenda items discussed by leaders were less controversial. One suspects that some, such as the cervical cancer initiative, were selected at least in part due to their potential for implementation. But agreement on specific actions in these areas was required for these initiatives to be considered a positive outcome at Port Moresby. The only area where this occurred was fisheries management.

On the issues of both ICT and cervical cancer the Forum Leaders’ communiqué was vague. The reasons for this are difficult to establish, given that the background material provided to leaders is not publicly available. It is possible that not enough effort was made in preparing detailed proposals for leaders. The fisheries proposal was different in this respect, as a plan had already been developed by fisheries agencies and required only approval by leaders. An alternative explanation is that a conscious decision was made to keep the subject matter general, in order to first gain leadership approval to develop proposals. In either case, it was a mistake not to develop detailed proposals for the initiatives, given longstanding criticisms of regionalism as not sufficiently action-oriented.

The framework worked well in other areas. Observers at the meeting have told us that the discussion was more substantive than in previous years, in which the agenda had been too crowded. The framework also attracted the interest of the public, reflecting a continuation of the high level of public engagement observed during the review of the Pacific Plan in 2013. This will help to addresses past concerns about ‘capture’ of regionalism by CROP agencies. The first ever meeting of civil society organisations with the Troika (the current PIF chair, outgoing PIF chair and incoming PIF chair) also addressed such concerns. Previous claims that the Forum excludes civil society (unlike the Fiji-sponsored Pacific Islands Development Forum) are now hard to justify as a result.

There is room for improvement in this area, however. Despite the public submission process, there was a lack of transparency with respect to what was discussed. Civil society organisations that attended the meeting were provided with a list of broad themes for discussion, but not the actual proposals considered by leaders. It remains unclear on what basis the SSCR made its decision to select the five agenda items for leaders (no documentation has been released). The process could therefore be improved, and hopefully will be in the future.

In our view, therefore, the new Framework for Pacific Regionalism went some way in achieving its objectives, notwithstanding the weak communiqué and political tensions surrounding the Forum Leaders’ meeting. The framework has made conversations about regionalism more inclusive, although there is room for improvement. It may have improved the process for consideration of regional proposals, although the lack of transparency highlighted above makes this difficult to judge. Again, there is considerable room for improvement in this space.

Most significantly, the framework recognises the reality that regionalism is inherently political. This is a positive, given the problems associated with the technocratic Pacific Plan. A more political approach will help to ensure that future strengthening of the regional architecture has a more solid foundation. However, this does not mean that strengthening regionalism will be any easier. The tensions observed at Port Moresby were a stark reminder of this.

Photo credit: Flickr/Raymond June

 

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

 

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

This item was first published Matthew Dornan & Tess Newton Cain 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 recentlyfollowing 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 (discussedhere); 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 assessingpooled 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

 

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.