Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 02:40 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 02:40 | SYDNEY

Vale Greg Urwin


Graeme Dobell

12 August 2008 12:06

Greg Urwin was a connoisseur of kava, the lip-numbing drink that is a symbol of the South Pacific. Greg could describe the different strengths, flavours and origins of kava, comparing Vanuatu to Solomon Islands or Fiji. And, with the cherubic grin that was an Urwin trademark, he would recount how once or twice his ability to deliver a speech on behalf of the Australian Government had been undone by kava. The lips might not have been able to form words, but the smile got him through.

Some of his diplomatic friends thought that the Urwin devotion to kava was a sign that he would sacrifice even his taste buds in the service of Australia’s interests in the South Pacific. That underestimated his scope as a man of the Pacific as well as Australia.

Greg has died at the age of 62 while serving in what now seems the natural pinnacle of his life’s work – Secretary-General of the Pacific Islands Forum. He was the first Australian to head the Forum. Because of his long career as a diplomat in the Pacific, he was one of the few Australians who could expect to be elected by the Island leaders. They saw him as a diplomat who had represented Australia, but who understood the Islands. In Apia, they said Greg Urwin was born an Australian and then grew into a Samoan.

Greg Urwin seldom left the Pacific after going to Samoa as Australia’s High Commissioner in 1977, where he met his wife.

Greg’s death prompts some thoughts on his experience of Australian diplomacy in the South Pacific, his close-run election to head the Forum and his legacy for regional cooperation.

First, Greg Urwin proved that the South Pacific is not a graveyard for those working in the Australian foreign service. The received view in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade used to be that one posting to the Pacific was an interesting career diversion; two postings to the region signified a career going nowhere.

Greg Urwin became a Pacific specialist when DFAT posting realities (if not declared policy) created generalists. That specialism took him a long way up DFAT ranks and gave him an extraordinary understanding of the region. He’d drunk kava at one time or another with just about everyone who plays for power in the Pacific.

All those career experiences were used in the campaign to overturn the Pacific lore that Australia could pay for the Pacific Forum, but no Australian could ever head the Forum secretariat.

Australia’s 2003 campaign for Greg to get the Suva job shone a light on the eternal ambivalence in Island attitudes to the regional superpower. Yes, Urwin was the natural choice to be secretary general; what a pity that he happened to be an Australian. His nationality must disqualify him. Of course, no Australian could run the secretariat. This was the Islands’ club and it must always have an Islander as manager.

The vote looked so tight that in the final weeks of the campaign, senior DFAT people in Canberra argued that Australia should withdraw Urwin’s candidature and take wins in some other easier areas. Why risk forcing a vote that Australia looked like losing?

The pre-emptive buckle strategy was defeated by arguments from Greg Urwin and others such as Australia’s ambassador in Fiji, Sue Boyd. If Australia was going to be truly serious about the Pacific, it had to be serious about the Forum. That meant Australia was entitled to reach for the top job.

The Canberra pessimists looked prescient, however, when the Forum leaders assembled in New Zealand for the annual summit. The anti-Australian forces – led by Papua New Guinea’s Michael Somare, assisted by Nauru – seemed to have lined-up the numbers to block Greg Urwin. Somare, though, under-estimated John Howard. The Australian Prime Minister might not have much of a feel for the South Pacific, but he had a born politician’s love of a fight and a vote.

Somare did not press home his advantage and have the secretary general job decided on the first day of the summit. At Howard’s suggestion, the decision was held over to the second day. Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister went off to celebrate that evening; Australia’s Prime Minister went off to twist arms and bargain and change the numbers. So it was that Greg Urwin came to head the Pacific secretariat. What seems natural in hindsight never looks inevitable at the time.

Greg Urwin’s legacy is the Pacific Plan, designed to increase cooperation amongst the Island states. It is a prosaic, almost colourless document. Yet it was painfully assembled by a man with a vision for a more cohesive and prosperous Pacific, who understood the pride and prerogatives of the Island governments. The argument was simple – the Islands would have to stand together or hang separately. Newly independent states would have to give up elements of their independence to be successful states.

The Pacific Plan has been pushed to the background by the disaster of Fiji’s coup and the tensions caused by Australia’s fight with the Sogavare government in Solomon Islands. Ultimately, though, the logic of a more united Pacific must prevail. That will be Greg’s gift to the Islands he loved.

Vale Greg Urwin: a wonderful man, a wonderful Australian diplomat and a wonderful Pacific Islander.