Australia’s missteps with Pacific media – it’s more than just bad manners

This item was first published in the Vanuatu Daily Post on April 14th, 2017

So this week the prime minister of Australia visited Papua New Guinea. It was a very short visit (he was on his way to India).

The relationship between Australia and PNG is a complex and complicated one. Recently, it has not been an easy one so this visit could and should have been a great opportunity.

It seems hard to believe that one very short visit could generate so much controversy. But it did.

Before Prime Minister Turnbull arrived, there were concerns that it was too close to the forthcoming elections in PNG.

While he was there, he and his immigration minister (who was not in PNG) gave out mixed messages about what the long-term future of refugees and asylum seekers on Manus island might be.

In amongst all this, the apparent treatment of members of the PNG media corps is something that merits particular scrutiny.

A senior journalist reported that the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby told her that a press conference at Bomana cemetery was for Australian journalists only and she was turned away from another subsequently.

At a very basic level, this is plain bad manners. It is also a fail at Public Diplomacy 101. But the implications of this go deeper and are much more significant.

First of all, the Australian foreign service has form in this regard. Late last year, when the Australian foreign minister visited Vanuatu members of the local media were given the run around and were not able to be at the official press event.

It sparked an editorial in this newspaper. But it does not appear to have sparked a meaningful discussion about why this is a bad thing and how to make sure it does not happen again.

Australian officials who organise these press events need to think about the context in which they operate. In this country, in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere in our region, the role of the media in the development and maintenance of democratic culture is not assured.

I looked recently at the disturbing comments of the prime minister of Tonga about what he thinks the media should or should not do. In PNG, we continue to see reports of journalists being vilified by politicians, threatened and attacked both verbally and physically.

In Vanuatu we can point to numerous instances of politicians treating the media with contempt and seeking to undermine their ability and willingness to ask hard questions or criticise failures of leadership.

Australia is the biggest democracy in our region. We might expect or hope that those who represent this democracy would provide leadership by example. But in this particular area, we have been sorely disappointed.

When Australian political leaders and officials treat our media badly it sends a signal to our politicians that it is OK for them to do so. The remarks of Justin Tkatchenko, the PNG Minister for Sports are telling in this regard.

At the close of Prime Minister Turnbull’s visit he made a reference to the local media having had a ‘rough time’ and then glossed over it with an airy assurance that all can learn from this for next time.

It may be that this is window dressing and behind closed doors Minister Tkatchenko will express his concern about the treatment of Papua New Guinean journalists in strong, possibly undiplomatic terms. Then again it may not be.

Australia is in the process of seeking regional and global support for it to become a member of the UN Human Rights Council. In 2015, Julie Bishop said:

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.

As we all know, actions speak louder than words. And the actions of Australian politicians and diplomats when they visit our region are of particular import.

The role of the media is crucial in the establishment and maintenance of democratic culture.

Our neighbour’s leaders and representatives should use opportunities such as to encourage media professionals to develop their practice. This includes asking difficult questions and holding decision-makers to account. That is the public service they are mandated to perform.

Since the very shabby treatment of Papua New Guinean journalists came to light, the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby has issued an apology. It relates to a ‘misunderstanding’ although, as RNZI notes, it is not clear what the nature of this misunderstanding is.

All well and good but an after the fact apology is too little and too late.


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


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.


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