Who owns the forum?

An opinion by Dr ROMAN GRYNBERG

(DR Roman Grynberg was, until earlier this March, the Director of Economic Governance with the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat).

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IN the early 1970s recently independent Pacific island leaders balked at their enforced silence in what was then the South Pacific Commission where they were unable to discuss French nuclear testing because of the opposition of the French government.

They decided as a group to create a new forum where independent nations would be free to talk. At the time Pacific island leaders were divided over whether the new ‘Forum’ should include Australia and New Zealand or not.

Ostensibly because of the huge resources these two countries could bring to the table they were grudgingly included.

Initially the Forum and its secretariat, then called the South Pacific Economic Community, was there to provide technical assistance to the islands, hand out small bits of cash for training and workshops and to service the annual meetings of leaders.

However, the Pacific Islands Forum quickly grew to become the region’s paramount political organisation where all major issues of the day are discussed.

It has replaced the Secretariat of the Pacific Community which now performs an essentially technical role. The two organisations co-exist but the highly contentious political issues are largely handled at the Forum.

By the late 1990s the Forum, under pressure from Australia and New Zealand, began to evolve as a policy making body rather than a technical body assisting the islands.

Regrettably the change in the function of the Forum was never accompanied by an increase in its capacity to set the policy.

At the beginning of the current decade this role as a policy making body became even more important when the ‘ethnic tensions’ occurred in the Solomon Islands.

The very important and beneficial Australian lead intervention to save the Solomon Islands from the possibility of civil war and total collapse meant Australia needed what is called ‘regional cover’ from the Forum for the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.

This sort of intervention could not be done bilaterally and needed the support of other island states through the Forum.

But whereas RAMSI started as a truly positive intervention to save the Solomon Islands it has evolved into creeping control of economic policy by the young Australian ‘babycrats’ as they have dubbed in Honiara.

Some of the commercial policies they have advocated and implemented will directly benefit Australia.

The wags in Honiara now say the RAMSI mission will continue for many years and will only ever come to an end once the last overpaid ‘babycrat’ in Honiara pays his last mortgage installment in Australia.

If the Forum is a policy body then who establishes the policy? These decisions over policy are made by ministers on advice from officials.

Ministers then seek endorsement from leaders.

But where does the actual policy come from? The answer is very simple. In theory it is the technical people at the Forum secretariat who prepare the papers and the advice.

In reality, however, there is simply no capacity within the Forum secretariat to establish independent policy on most economic issues.

The policy either comes directly or indirectly from Canberra and Wellington or through its ‘multilateral cover’, that is the IMF, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

If you look at almost every study undertaken in the region by the international financial institutions you will find a thank you on page 2 or 3 for the funding provided by AusAID or NZAID.

These organisations have Australian and New Zealand staff seconded to them and Canberra vigorously and jealously controls their trust accounts.

Only very occasionally do any of these institutions dare give advice that Canberra and Wellington explicitly disapprove of. This did occur recently with the World Bank’s courageous and successful push to get Australia and New Zealand to open up their horticultural labour markets to Pacific island temporary workers.

Who sets the Forum agenda? In the Forum as in all international bodies, a draft agenda for every meeting is sent out to all members and they must all agree.

In reality in most cases only Australia and New Zealand have the capacity to review these documents and make substantive comments and hence they very largely set the Forum’s agenda.

Not one Pacific island country, even PNG, the largest, has one dedicated official whose sole job it is to work only on Pacific island affairs.

Australia and New Zealand have scores of officials and desk officers in Canberra and Wellington with experts on each Forum island country.

Pacific island officials work on so many areas they have to be a ‘jack of all trades’ but because they are so busy they rarely even have time to read the meeting papers prior to an international meeting.

As a result they are almost invariably out-gunned by their Australian and New Zealand counterparts at any meeting.

So if the Forum’s policy and the agenda are by and large set in Canberra and Wellington why do Pacific island officials, ministers and leaders continue to accept it?

The answer to this is fairly complex. The first reason is that some of the advice provided by Australia and New Zealand is basically sound.

Whether it is democracy and the rule of law or the liberalisation of telecommunication and air transport few Pacific islanders would doubt that the advice provided by Canberra and Wellington either directly or through their regional or international surrogates has done anything other than benefit the people of the region.

However, there are many glaring examples in the past of policy advice which Canberra and Wellington would not be so proud of.

But this is not the point really. I have witnessed Pacific island officials and ministers sit there and agree to policy they know is not in their country’s interest.

You will often hear outsiders ask why they remain silent? The usual response is a cultural explanation. Many Pacific island cultures, though by no means all, have no tradition of engaging in the sort of direct confrontation needed to achieve their foreign policy objectives.

I don’t like this explanation because it portrays Pacific islanders as victims and I have seen another type of more subtle calculus occurring.

Many Pacific islanders remain silent for what are often good self interested reasons.

It takes a courageous official to question Canberra and Wellington when Australia and New Zealand provide two-thirds of the income of the Forum Secretariat and a very large part of their national aid budget. Careers of officials can be terminated. Prime Ministers will receive letters of complaint about recalcitrant ministers and pressure can be brought to remove governments where they are too strident. All this is part of the normal use of power to retain effective control of countries in Australia and New Zealand’s lake.

But in the final analysis what buys the silence of the islands in Forum meetings stems from the ‘original sin’ of the Forum leaders who included the aid donors as members and created a Forum where the poor and vulnerable are better off remaining silent.

There is an ancient proverb that goes, more or less ‘He who eats the food of others shall grow weak in the mouth and he who takes the goods of others shall grow weak in the arms’.

This I believe explains much of the silence that is observed at forum meetings.

Whenever a Pacific island leader or minister sits there and accepts policy that is not in their national interests they know that speaking up too loudly may risk the aid flows to their country.

There is, however, even a dirtier secret about the Forum that all ministers and leaders know.

They can sit there at Forum meetings and nod silently to a policy which they have no intention of implementing when they go home and there is no-one to force them to do so.

So what happens are an endless cycle of meetings with quiescent ministers who agree silently to things because they know it will cost them too much to object publicly or they have no intention of implementing when they get home.

Implementation of decisions has simply never been a great priority for the Forum.

So if the purpose of creating the Forum 35 years ago was to have a place where free and independent countries could speak freely then the silence of island ministers means that the Forum is really no longer fit for its purpose – because of the disproportionate power and wealth of Australia and New Zealand.

There are some Pacific islanders who dream of reversing the ‘original sin’ of the forum’s founding fathers.

The Forum Secretariat with its six figures incomes, manicured lawns and its cycle of largely fruitless meetings (which provide very profitable daily subsistence allowances) will not change and Pacific islanders are never likely to throw Australia and New Zealand out of the Forum. International organisation do not change – they simply become irrelevant or less relevant, witness the UN over 60 years.

More to the point, Pacific islanders irrespective of how they feel about the Forum still need a place to talk to their neighbours Australia and New Zealand.

But is the Forum a place where free nations can exchange their views openly which is what the founding fathers wanted when they broke away from SPC? Freedom, as the Americans quite rightly remind us, is not free. The increasing power and domination of the islands by Australia and New Zealand is the real price the islands nations pay for Australia and New Zealand financial support.

For the larger Melanesian states which constitute 85% of the Pacific island population there is the realisation that if they want independent and unbiased advice then they have to form their own secretariat.

Hence with Chinese and possibly EU funding the Melanesians are creating a Melanesian Spearhead Group secretariat in Vanuatu.

The Melanesians want the freedom to get independent advice but they want the Chinese and the Europeans to pay.

This will also probably not work in the longer term but at least for the moment Chinese and EU interests in the region are profoundly different from that of Australia and New Zealand and will give the Melanesian states much greater policy space.

Things will only change with the circumstances. In the last generation it was France which silenced the islands. The present culture of silence in the Forum stems from the nature of the relationship with Australia and New Zealand. It is perverse and will never lead to a healthy relationship. There may yet come a generation of Pacific island leaders who have a genuine vision and intestinal fortitude to lead their countries and the region. I do not see it yet but I wish the Pacific islands, the region that has been my home for 25 years the very best in raising them.