Saturday 16 Oct 2021 | 03:43 | SYDNEY
Saturday 16 Oct 2021 | 03:43 | SYDNEY

Pacific Forum: The absent Chair


Jenny Hayward-Jones


23 March 2010 16:12

Graeme Dobell's post about Australia's drift from the Pacific region covers an issue close to my heart and one I am dwelling on in my research. This recent article from Islands Business also reflects consternation in the region that Australia is losing its Pacific focus.

One of the benefits to the region of Australia chairing the Pacific Islands Forum is that the Pacific has a formal opportunity to project its voice through an activist and well-resourced middle power – to get noticed and be taken seriously on the world stage. 

To the best of my knowledge, the Pacific Islands Forum is the only regional multilateral organisation Australia currently chairs. I would have thought our foreign policy-focused PM would be a bit more interested in projecting Australia's voice in and through the Forum. Prime Minister Rudd said as much himself in relation to global climate change negotiations during this doorstop at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in November last year. 

But since the Cairns Pacific Islands Forum leaders' meeting, when Australia assumed the Chair, we have heard very little from Canberra about this role. The announcement of further funding for the Forum did not even mention the fact that Australia holds the Chair of the organisation. Perhaps Canberra, aware of its reputation in some quarters as the bully of the region, is deliberately adopting a low public profile as Chair to avoid confrontation. 

In a search of the PM's media centre website I found a mixed record of references to the Pacific Islands Forum since the Cairns meeting. 

The Australian Government is not represented by the Prime Minister alone but the PM is officially the 'Chair' of the Forum. The PM's interest in representing himself in this role peaked at the time of the UN General Assembly in late September 2009 and then again in November 2009 at the time of the expulsion of Australia's High Commissioner to Fiji. I couldn't find any Prime Ministerial references to Australia's chairing role in 2010, which perhaps reflects the realities of an Australian election year.

Still, Australia's chairing record should not be measured by public references from the Prime Minister but by outcomes. Australian bureaucrats have been working hard to implement the Cairns Compact on Strengthening Development Coordination in the Pacific. This is a significant achievement in itself and has potential to make a real difference to Pacific Island governments and the delivery of development assistance. Unfortunately, however, it's not the kind of activity that has resonance with the Australian public or that has an immediate direct impact on broader Pacific Island populations. 

On other fronts – advancing the region's interests in global climate change negotiations, progressing regional trade negotiations or even helping Pacific Islanders participate in seasonal work in Australia – Pacific nations could be forgiven for questioning the benefits of Australia's chairing role.

The Pacific Islands region has an audience that takes Australia very seriously. Australia holds the chair of the Forum until August. There is still time for Australia to take more interest in the region's needs and demonstrate to the region that there are indeed benefits to leadership by a 'creative middle power'.

Photo by Flickr user Mc-Q, used under a Creative Commons license.