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Where is the ‘mana’ in our Pacific Way?

Maureen Penjueli top
Maureen Penjueli - Australia and New Zealand's absence at the recent crucial Pacific Islands Forum meeting challenges their commitment to the region

| Pacific Islands News Association

SUVA - The decision by Micronesian leaders to withdraw from the region’s premier political body, the Pacific Islands Forum, is a move of tectonic scale whose impact will reverberate across the region.

The withdrawal comes on the back of a bruising leadership contest for Secretary-General of the Forum.

That there was a contest at all was surprising, as the leadership should have been a mere formality, to support the Micronesian countries’ nominee, Ambassador Gerald Zackios.

Since 2019, the Micronesian leaders have been clear: it was their turn.

The ‘Pacific Way’ required rotation of the Secretary-General’s position amongst the three sub-regions and for the sub-regions of Polynesia and Melanesia to honour that agreement.

It is a political decision.

Notwithstanding there are consequences to breaching any agreement, chiefly a breakdown in trust.

The Pacific Way is a far more complex and nuanced method of decision making than a gentlemen’s agreement or a handshake.

\It is often misunderstood and dismissed as an inferior system of political decision-making compared to a merit, rules-based method seeking expediency and efficiency.

We base the Pacific Way on face-to-face meetings, its strength is in our words and the actions and the integrity attached to them. It is built on consensus.

It also allows for the most difficult conversations to take place and to understand different positions with wise counsel, a critical ingredient to ensure unity.

The collective amnesia now being exposed by our Pacific island leaders denying that such an agreement existed warrants interrogation.

Who stands to gain the most from this sudden departure from the Pacific Way? The obvious answer, now that their de-facto candidate is in charge, is New Zealand and Australia.

Henry Puna’s candidacy supported by the six Polynesian Leaders, with Wellington’s fingerprints all over his nomination, opened the floodgates.

It was swiftly followed by Amelia Kinahoi Siamoma the only woman candidate (Tonga), Dr Jimmy Rodgers (Solomon Islands) and former Fijian foreign minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, a late entrant.

Submitting other candidates to challenge the Micronesian candidate breached the most fundamental pillar of the Pacific Way - consensus.

Consensus has been the hallmark of the Pacific Way and what separated the Forum from other institutions.

To change the rules to merit-based adds salt to the wound and denies recognition of the merit of Micronesia on the regional and global stage by saying that the other Pacific island candidates are superior to the Micronesian candidate.

That Micronesian leaders did not go on their soapboxes to argue the ‘merit’ of their candidate is a testament to the quiet integrity and wisdom of their leadership.

Micronesia understands its value and worth to the Pacific island countries: the rest of the region did not want to see it nor accept it.

To argue the decision is merit -based is simply untrue; it was and is political.

What followed was a downward spiral with leaders happy to bend the rules by introducing a new rule for political expediency, and that sets a dangerous precedent. 

To justify submitting alternative candidates, some countries argued that a Micronesian could not fill the top two positions (Secretary-General and Deputy) at the same time.

Those who advanced that argument were conveniently oblivious to the precedent of previous cases of Secretary-Generals and Deputies who were dual passport holders.

In 2020 there were at least two appeals from the chair of the Forum, Tuvalu’s prime minister Kausea Natano, to resolve the impasse.

Tuvalu sought to defer the decision on the Secretary General nominations until a face-to-face meeting later in 2021 and he suggested to extend Dame Meg Taylor’s term in the interim.

This would have worked if Tuvalu had been able to mobilise wider support from the region. Fiji, as the host government rejected the proposal.

The voting system, a method the region had never used to resolve contentious issues, compounded the discord and perhaps enabled the result because the vote was virtual.

Would the leaders have had the courage to break their agreement if they had carried out the meeting in the traditional way at a face-to-face meeting?

The final tally of eight votes to Micronesia’s Zackios and nine to Polynesia’s’ Puna reflects just how close the contest was.

Three countries (PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands) honoured our Pacific Way in the end by voting with the Micronesian bloc. New Caledonia abstained. The Polynesian bloc was supported by Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

Although the de facto New Zealand and Australian candidate won, the high cost extracted raises serious questions about their judgement. Fiji withdrew its candidate early in the race as it became clear there was no support.

As the incoming chair, Fiji took part in the Secretary-General election at the same time it was deporting the vice-chancellor of the University of the South Pacific.

The lack of immediate public condemnation by Australia or New Zealand signalled that Fiji can act with impunity.

The deportation certainly shows how little regard Fiji has for those that stood with it at the time in 2009, when it was suspended from the Forum, as well as its ego-centric view of regionalism.

New Zealand and Australia may have miscalculated their level of influence.

Neither prime minister Jacinda Arden and Scott Morrison attended in full the controversial special leaders meeting.

Their notable absence at such a crucial moment challenges their commitment to our region.

Jacinda Arden and Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne have since broken the silence recognising the deep disappointment of the Micronesian leaders and expressing hopes for a reconsideration of their decision.

If only it were that simple.

We should also watch the Polynesian leaders to see whether they convene to discuss the consequences of their breach of the agreement.

The Forum will mark 50 years in existence this year.

Fiji, as chair must decide how it will lead, but the initial signs are not promising.

Many will lament the fracture of the regional architecture and many will argue that Micronesia’s ego is bruised, that the leadership was determined by a robust voting system and that the decision to leave is unfortunate.

It would be wrong to see Micronesia’s response as simply an overreaction. What the Pacific has lost, at least for now, is something much deeper - our mana in our Pacific Way.

The Micronesian leaders have offered a one-year transition period. Let’s hope some serious and meaningful attempts are made to broker and redress their grievances.


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Chris Overland

It seems to me that this whole imbroglio is a complex mess of bruised egos, cultural misunderstanding and bad judgement.

An old adage is that you should never suspect a conspiracy when a stuff up is a perfectly adequate explanation and I think that this may apply in this case.

Our prime minister is long on rhetoric about our 'Pacific family' but, as usual, short on delivery hence the apparent failure to put in an appearance just when it may have been wise to do so.

This is his basic modus operandi so I guess this should be no surprise to anyone.

I am somewhat surprised that New Zealand seems to have misjudged the situation as its handling of Pacific affairs is generally much more subtle and deft than Australia's efforts.

Quite how the participants in this fiasco can find a dignified way out of it whilst maintaining cohesion between Forum members is anyone's guess. Some face to face meetings seems the obvious place to start.

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