Wednesday 22 Aug 2018 | 00:36 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 22 Aug 2018 | 00:36 | SYDNEY

Pacific Forum: Bang and whimper

16 August 2010 13:55

Lisa Roberts is Interim Program Director for the Myer Foundation Melanesia Program.

The Lowy Myer Melanesia Program had two staff members on the ground in Port Vila, Vanuatu, tracking the 41st Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting. The meeting concluded with a large party and an amazing fireworks display, courtesy of China, which aptly symbolised the entire event – lots of colour; not a lot of substance.

Although holding an annual Pacific Island leaders meeting is important and useful for the region, there were no great revelations in the communiqué on how Forum Leaders are going to tackle the big issues of climate change, trade, development, etc. In fact, this year's communiqué looks very much like the communiqué from the 40th Pacific Islands Forum, and the 39th, and the 38th... This is what you get when you operate on a consensus model of decision-making.

This year's meeting centred on the theme of 'Navigating our challenges and opportunities together towards addressing the needs of the most vulnerable of our communities'. A noble theme, but in the context of setting parameters for a regional meeting, it's so broad as to be very close to meaningless.

Sadly, there was little effort made by organisers to incorporate civil society into the meeting, whether before, after or on the margins. Civil society organisations held a three-day meeting in parallel not far from where the Forum Leaders were meeting at Le Legion in Port Vila. Yet there was no formal exchange between the two. Pacific leaders continued to welcome and thank civil society at all functions, despite the fact that there were only a handful of representatives in the room.

Australia's Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, in his role as outgoing chair, delivered a non-rousing speech at the formal opening of the Forum. He looked bored, tired and had that glazed look in his eyes which suggests he was thinking of other things. An upcoming election, perhaps.

Smith made no reference in his speech to Fiji; instead he focused on regional stability, the supposed success of RAMSI, and the need to improve development coordination efforts through the Cairns Compact. He stated Australia was united with the Pacific, and our futures are closely linked. He concluded by saying Australia, in its chairing capacity, had made great progress on PACER-Plus, the Cairns Compact and Climate Change.

Few journalists seem to share the Minister's view, with many commentators claiming Australia did 'zip' in its role as Forum Chair. Rudd certainly started off well – he had a vision for a Pacific community and made lots of promises, at the last Leaders meeting in Cairns, of great things to come. But these have led to little in the way of tangible outcomes, and Australian Government interest in the Pacific appears to have diminished of late (except, of course, on the issue of asylum seekers) .   

A hot topic of discussion in the margins of the meeting was the big question of whether the Forum had lost its relevance as the premier high level meeting for the region. More on that in a follow-up post.

Photo by Flickr user Jade Rowland, used under a Creative Commons license.