Monday, August 03, 2009

Pacific Islands Forum Meeting-The Cracker In Cairns?

From Island Business, "Letter From Suva"(LFS) column examines the lead up to Pacific Islands Forum meet in Cairns. This meet is expected to be a cracker and already some sparks have been observed, as L.F.S describes the leak of Forum draft report.


Laisa Taga - Editor-in-Chief

Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd hosts his first Pacific Islands Forum Leaders meeting in Cairns next month and those in the know expect it to be fiery and fiesty.
And that’s judging from how the June trade ministers meeting in Apia went. Observers who attended the meeting told LETTER FROM SUVA that it was obvious the meeting was split when it came to Fiji and its non inclusion at the trade ministers meeting.

“On one side you had Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and the Cooks and, on the other side, the Melanesian Spearhead Group—PNG, Solomons and Vanuatu—Kiribati and Tonga. Tonga’s PM Dr Feleti Sevele was definitely very vocal about Fiji’s non-inclusion and he was supported by other ministers including PNG’s Sam Abal.

“Most of these ministers were expressing the view that legally Fiji has every right to be at the meeting before chairman, Samoa’s trade minister Misa Telefoni, ruled the issue closed,” a Forum observer said.

“Judging from what was happening there in Apia, there would definitely be fireworks at the leaders meeting if the Fiji issue is not handled properly. It could turn out to be divisive or be a dynamite waiting to explode,” the observer said.

Already the islands are split over Fiji’s suspension by the Forum. A draft report leaked to LETTER FROM SUVA was critical about Fiji’s suspension from the Forum saying it is a major setback for regional co-operation and intergration.

The report was authored by Makurita Baaro, a former senior adviser at the Forum Secretariat (ForumSec). She was hired by the ForumSec to review the three years of implementation of the Pacific Plan.
Forum Leaders had called for an independent comprehensive review of the progress on implementation, every three years. In her report, following extensive consultation meetings totalling over 150 with all Forum members and other stakeholders across the Pacific, Ms Baaro said Fiji’s suspension would pose a major challenge to regional solidarity and the Pacific Plan.

“Already, there are differing views and an increasing polarisation amongst the Forum membership on this very sensitive issue and the subject is one that has real potential to create fragmentation and a major division amongst Forum members.”

She added that Fiji’s suspension will have far reaching and major implications, not only on regional solidarity but also on the implementation of the many initiatives under the Pacific Plan.

The leakage of the report, just a few days after it was presented to the Forum Secretariat, forced the secretariat to launch a major investigation on who leaked the sensitive report. When this edition went to press, the Forum Secretariat was still no way near identifying the culprit, although they have their own suspicions.

But why the witch-hunt? What was so sensitive about the report that ForumSec did not want people to know about? Was it the differing views revealed about Fiji’s suspension by islands countries, which is contradictory to the decision made by the islands leaders in PNG early this year? Was it because the ForumSec was caught out before it had time to censor or tone down the report?

LETTER FROM SUVA understands Ms Baaro was instructed not to include comments on Fiji in her report. But she refused. As a result, ForumSec has now put on hold payment of the rest of her consultancy fees.

Ms Baaro is being paid A$10,000 a month to carry out the review. It was to be a three-month exercise but was extended by a month. So far ForumSec has only paid her A$20,000.
It is not the first time ForumSec has tried to tone down a report. Consultants of an AUSAID review in September last year were also asked to tone down their report but refused, saying it was an independent report and as such they were entitled to their views.
This review was critical of regional organisations and the Pacific Plan, warning that if they don’t shape up and improve their act, they could lose funding from their two major donors—Australia and New Zealand. Both countries poured approximately A$130 million into regional organisations during 2005-2008.

So what now? What version of the Baaro report gets to see the light of day when it is presented to the leaders in Cairns? It will be interesting to see which version finally makes it to the leaders.
Hopefully, the ForumSec will not tone down or censor it that it does not truly reflect the views of the Forum member countries which are coming out loud and clear.

Melanesian Spearhead Group leaders (PNG, Solomons, Vanuatu and Fiji) will meet this month in a special one-day retreat in Port Vila on July 10. Although there is no set agenda, the meeting has been specifically called by the MSG chair, Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Edward Natapei, to discuss concerns about Fiji and its suspension from all Forum organised meetings.

Fiji had issued a statement expressing disappointment about being excluded from the PACER talks held in Apia, Auckland and Port Vila. The exclusion, the statement said, was a violation of its rights.

All MSG leaders have indicated they will attend the Port Vila meeting, where they are also expected to discuss their position at the Cairns meeting.

Fiji’s Bainimarama has been specifically asked by PNG’s Sir Michael Somare to attend the meeting where he will also deliver Fiji’s roadmap to 2014, when it is expected to hold an election.
Bainimarama will be banking on these leaders and on this meeting to push Fiji’s case at the Cairns meeting, after all he won’t be there.

A MSG source said the Port Vila meeting will be interesting. “MSG leaders will be asking themselves – do we consolidate on our position on Fiji, or do we have differing views?

“Meeting chairman Vanuatu’s Natapei and Solomons’ Dr Derek Sikua are likely to gravitate towards Fiji and while Somare, I think, will differ slightly. He is likely to adopt a more cautious stance, reminding the leaders that a decision has already been made and to do otherwise will undermine the intergrity of the Forum and its leaders,” the MSG source said.

“But if the MSG decides to take a stand on Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and even Tonga will jump onboard. If this happens, we may come out with the fragmentation of the Forum,” the MSG source said. Another issue that is likely to cause fireworks in Cairns is PACER and particularly how the islands countries were railroaded by Australia into accepting its position.

What then? Australia anticipating fireworks at the Forum meeting, could use its chairmanship to douse the fire by steering clear of regional issues like Fiji and PACER and putting the current global economic crisis centre stage—an issue that affects everyone across the board, relegating regional issues as secondary issues.

Let’s hope the islands leaders will stand up and be counted and stop bending backwards to accommodate others’ interests that run counter to their own.

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