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Opinion by Kevin Rudd
Few Australians would have heard much about the dramatic schism at the Pacific Islands Forum last week, but its consequences for our region could be long-lasting and disastrous.
Fiji’s suspension from the forum in 2009 presented a serious political crisis for the institution. But through active Australian and New Zealand leadership, working with our Pacific counterparts, the Forum held together. Nothing, however, compares in the Forum’s history to the decision last week by its five Micronesian members – Nauru, Kiribati, Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia – to voluntarily walk away from the institution. Even if a deal can be worked out before they formally exit a year from now, the fact is that Pacific regionalism will never be the same.
The challenge for the Australian government is to not just fiddle while Rome burns. These events have already shown the Morrison government’s Pacific “Step Up” has been little more than a giant Pacific “Stuff Up”. Australia’s role in the region is to constructively and respectfully help our island neighbours navigate their collective future. The risk now is that the Pacific Islands Forum disappears altogether, thereby fracturing longstanding regional solidarity. If the forum implodes, Australia too would lose its formal seat at the table of the Pacific family. That would be strategically disastrous for Australia. And great news for Beijing.
Fifty years ago, when the South Pacific Forum (as it was known then) was established, Australia was only invited to attend as an observer. When Canberra pushed back, Fiji was instrumental in brokering an arrangement whereby Australia and New Zealand would be welcomed as full members, but with the implicit understanding they would not upset the consensus view.
Australia’s role in deciding the result of the contest for the forum’s next secretary-general, to be former Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, was the latest departure from that principle. We should have left it to the rest of the region to decide between two equally impressive candidates who are both good friends of Australia. Australia is best served when our diplomacy helps to facilitate consensus in the Pacific and prevents the emergence of such damaging splits.
However, this cavalier lack of interest in, and sensitivity towards, the region has become the norm under successive Australian conservative governments. During the Howard government, the forum’s founder, Ratu Mara, said he regretted letting us in the door to begin with. Tony Abbott mocked the entire gathering. And it was conservatives’ halving of Australian aid to the Pacific after 2013, and Scott Morrison’s recalcitrance on climate change at the 2019 forum, that made things incandescent and laid some of the groundwork for the deep cracks that were on display last week. The bottom line is that Morrison’s lack of regional credibility has diminished Australia’s capacity to wield effective influence in regional capitals.
The brutal reality the Australian government confronts today is that there are two paths ahead. The status quo will see us retain a seat at the table of a fractured regional body that has seen a third of its membership effectively quit. As a result, power will become more concentrated in the three subregional bodies for Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia where we have no place at the table whatsoever.
The alternative is that we now, with urgency, help the Pacific family heal and reimagine a new collective framework for regional governance. This will require urgent and continuing prime ministerial effort over the next 12 months.
This won’t be the first time Australia has has worked with the region to navigate difficult challenges. In 2015, Julie Bishop brought Pacific leaders to Sydney, which helped pave the way for Fiji to return to the forum after democracy was finally restored. This required Fiji to back down from their demand for Australia and New Zealand to first leave the forum.
The fact this same sentiment for Australia to leave is already being bandied about as one of many possible pre-conditions for the Micronesian nations to return underscores the need for urgent Australian action. There is much good work we can and should do now as part of the Pacific family, such as helping magnify the voice of the region globally, particularly on climate change. With the right framework, and the right approach, the island states welcome our engagement. Our financial support is also obviously critical, even if one of the many proud legacies of the outgoing secretary-general, Meg Taylor, has been her bolstering of the contributions of the Pacific Island nations themselves to the forum budget.
The Pacific Islands Forum has made a real difference for the people of the Pacific. It helped put a stop to French nuclear testing. It has helped secure the Paris Agreement. And most recently, it has helped ensure the Pacific has been the most successful region in the world in limiting the spread of COVID-19 (quite an achievement when you look at the history of the Spanish flu there a century ago).
The lack of urgent political and media debate in this country on the prospective dismemberment of a regional institution that has helped underpin regional security for half a century is breathtaking. It is an indictment of a government that, despite its anti-China jihad of recent years, has been largely asleep at the regional wheel. If this is not turned around, the events of last week will be recorded in the decades to come as one of those seminal moments when the region began drifting away from Australia altogether.
The lack of public debate cannot mask the fact that the island states of the Pacific continue to be of critical strategic importance to Australia’s future. Just as they were for us in the past, including during the darkest days of World War II. The Pacific Islands Forum is worth saving. And the Australian government needs to step up to work with the region to support it to find a way through this crisis.
Kevin Rudd is a former Labor prime minister of Australia.
Pacific Islands News Association
Who & What is PINA?
International News Safety Institute (INSI)
Media Helping Media