Troublesome challenges for Forum Island Countries [Pacific Scoop, Sep 4, 2011]
A cynical view of these Forum Island Country gatherings is that by and large, they are
(a) fully paid carefree holidays for the political leaders and their civil servant entourages, in nice places like Auckland, Sydney, Vila, or Nadi (sorry, no more).
(b) totally funded (and thereby “managed”) by Australia and NZ resulting in
(c) innocuous statements about the Pacific Plan, Pacer Plus, labour mobility, Global Warming and Climate Change etc., all resulting in
(d) no significant change to any Pacific Islanders’ lives, any time soon.
The same may happen again. Then again, it may not, depending on how independent and genuinely committed are the Pacific Island leaders to the concept of Pacific Islanders’ unity.
This particular gathering in Auckland will be judged by history on the strength of their statements or progress on the following key issues, where I suggest some alternatives.
1. Liberation of West Papua
It is a sad indictment of the past few years of Forum Country gatherings that “Big Power Diplomacy” has emasculated the Forum Island Countries from expressing their solidarity with the oppressed Melanesian people of West Papua.
They continue to suffer one of the harshest forms of colonialism and exploitation (going on for decades) resulting in a total crushing of basic human rights of the incredibly poverty-stricken Melanesian people, not to mention massive environmental degradation.
Why have the FICs “forgotten” them?
Because the beneficiaries of this colonialism are first and foremost extremely powerful Indonesia, and secondly the largest mining (copper and gold) and petroleum (oil) companies in the world with powerful political connections in United States, Indonesia and Australia.
Australia (and by association, NZ) have historically been intimidated by Indonesia (strong ally of United States) to raise the issue of the independence of West Papua- their most immediate neighbor to the north.
Just as they were intimidated for decades into silence about the murder of the four Australian journalists in Timor.
It does not help the West Papua cause that Australian mining companies are also big beneficiaries of the mining resources in West Papua.
Because of the immense profitability of these mines which pay little heed to the environment, the mining multinationals freely abuse the basic human rights of the West Papua Melanesian people, giving the lie to their glossy advertisements throughout the world about their alleged care for human beings and the environment.
To show their genuine commitment, Pacific Island countries in the Forum, need to
(a) call for the liberation of their Melanesian brothers and sisters in West Papua;
(b) call for Observer Status to be given to West Papuan People’s Representative Office;
(c) agree to wholehearted support their cause in United Nations
(d) agree to provide scholarships, training and attachments for the Melanesian people of West Papua in Pacific Island countries, and fully funded by the Pacific countries themselves.
It may seem like a “lost cause” at the moment, but it also seemed like that when in the seventies, we in the Nuclear Free and Independence Pacific and the Young Women’s Christian Movements in Suva used to support the Fretilin Independence movement and freedom fighters like Jose Ramos Horta, for Timor. Look where Timor is now.
West Papua freedom fighters Dr John Ondawame, Rumakiek and Paula Makabory (Pacific Scoop August 30) likewise need the moral and real support of the free Pacific Island countries.
2. Labour Mobility
Probably the most positive development benefit that Most Pacific Island countries could gain is by increasing the access for unskilled labor to Australia which has hesitated for almost a decade on this development, while NZ has gone ahead with a small scheme.
This is a Win-Win situation which has not materialised because of the lack of vision by Australian politicians, and the power of the trade union movement in Australia which fears the downward pressure that unskilled labour from the Pacific would bring.
Individual Forum Countries should not wait for Pacer Plus (that will take a decade I suspect) to be finalized but should move on this front independently, although it can be incorporated into Pacer Plus once (if ever) that agreement is signed.
Small Forum countries like Tuvalu, Kiribati and Tonga, should move on labour mobility on a bilateral basis with Australia and NZ simply because a wider agreement with PNG, Solomons and Vanuatu is too frightening for Australia to countenance.
If Australia and NZ conmtinue to refuse to make major concessions on this front, FICs should use their grouping to explore enhancing this possibility with United States (which has recently opened up labour access to the Pacific) and with Canada (where there have been major inroads in recent years by many developing countries such as the Philippines and West Indian countries).
3. Defence Co-operation
Australia and NZ have had great difficulty in recruiting their citizens for their defence forces, armies and navies. The FICs have a surplus of such persons.
Forum Island Countries should pressure Australia and NZ to take reasonable numbers of their FIC defense personnel into special units which can assist Australia and NZ with (a) policing the Pacific against illegal activities through enhanced Australian/NZ navies (especially Tuvaluans and I-Kiritibati) and (b) by forming disciplined land force units, under their management, which can be used in peace-keeping activities though-out the world (and the Pacific).
Such measures ought to seriously reduce such expenditure for FICs, provide employment for young willing FIC personnel, and generate foreign exchange remittances for the FICs.
It may (distant hope) give proper professional training to FIC military personnel, although the counter evidence is that the military coups in Fiji have been carried by officers trained by Australia, NZ and India.
4. Sports and rugby
Despite protests and pleas for more than a decade, Australia and NZ continue their colonialist exploitation of Pacific Island rugby.
While Fiji, Samoa and Tonga have long called for their own team to be included into the Super 12 (then 14, then 15) rugby, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears in Canberra and Wellington.
Sports and politics don’t mix, eh? But Canberra and Wellington do not mind refusing visas to any rugby player related to any one in the Military Regime.
Rugby in the Pacific is not just sports, but also part of the economy, and trade earning valuable foreign exchange.
It could also become a great boost to Pacific tourism.
But with lack of support from Canberra and Wellington, their respective white dominated rugby unions have let a great opportunity go begging for more than a decade.
Australian and NZ rugby unions continue their pettiness by refusing to allow Pacific Islanders to play for their home teams if not selected for Australia and NZ, thereby guaranteeing weaker opposition at the Rugby World Cups and other international competition.
It wouldn’t do would it, to have Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga wallop Australia and NZ at the Rugby World Cup, would it? There are not too many “World Cups” left that Australia and NZ have a hope of winning.
Forget the fact that all these rugby restrictions are contrary to free trade (and World Trade Organisation) principles.
FICs might wish to examine whether they should re-orient some of their organised sports (and energy and money) towards American Football, Baseball, Basketball and Athletics, which are huge money spinners in US and as larger markets, would offer better opportunities to Pacific sports people, than Australia and NZ currently do through rugby, soccer and netball.
5. PACER Plus
It is guaranteed that PACER Plus negotiations will drag on for years.
Pacific Island politicians and civil servants won’t mind because they are guaranteed endless free trips to meetings and conferences which will go on and on and on and on, while endless comprises are sought.
With the massive liquid natural gas and mineral developments in PNG, you can be sure that Australia and NZ will have opened new bilateral fronts for PNG, totally independent of PACER Plus negotiations with the other FICs.
The rest of the FICs can chew the PACER Plus cud endlessly, while legal and technical compromises are sought that please every minor little interest in Fiji (oops, not at the moment), Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and all the other small countries, the latter having virtually nothing of economic value to offer Australia and NZ (except control of large areas of sea and air space).
The FICs have already implicitly indicated to Australia and NZ that they would like to continue their “beggar status” by refusing to put any of their own money into the Chief Negotiator’s Office for PACER Plus, to ensure that the their PACER Plus negotiators will be accountable to them only, and not to Australia and NZ.
This way, FICs can always complain that Australia and NZ were controlling the agenda of the Chief Negotiating Office by controlling their financing.
It is not that FICs cannot afford the five to ten millions that are needed. Look at the wasted hundreds of millions of tax-payers’ funds in PNG, Fiji and Solomon Islands.
Indeed, the FICs, while annually complaining that there is too much control of Forum Secretariat agenda and senior staff appointments by Australia and NZ, have never demanded that they themselves should pay for the budget of Forum Secretariat and therefore have them accountable.
Indeed, how many Pacific Island Leaders would themselves pay for their own attendance at the Forum meetings?
FIC leaders seem to have never heard of the cliche “he who pays the piper, calls the tune”.
But don’t expect this hand-out mentality on either PACER Plus or the funding of the Forum Secretariat to change at this Forum Meeting or any other.
[Dr Narsey’s writings on regional trade and sports issues may be read in “PICTA, PACER and EPAs: weaknesses in Pacific island countries’ trade policies”. Pacific Economic Bulletin, Vol.19 No 3. 2004. Other Fiji Times and Island Business articles, especially on rugby colonialism in the Pacific, may be accessed at http://www.econ.fbe.usp.ac.fj/index.php?id=7319]
[Dr Wadan Narsey is a former Professor of Economics at The University of the South Pacific].