12 Aug 2013

Fiji regime hails new regional grouping

5:09 pm on 12 August 2013

Fiji says it will only consider rejoining the Pacific Islands Forum, if key donors, Australia and New Zealand, quit the organisation.

And Fiji has hailed the start-up of its new regional body, saying it will be more relevant and effective for the region's needs.

Sally Round was in Fiji at the inauguration of the new grouping and filed this report.

Fiji's prime minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama took centre stage on the dais at Monday's formal welcome ceremony to the Pacific Islands Development Forum. He was flanked by leaders from Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, and Solomon Islands and the chief guest East Timor's prime minister, Xanana Gusmao. 14 countries out of 23 invited turned up to the gathering, a follow-up to Fiji's Engaging the Pacific series of meetings and a response to its suspension from the Pacific Islands Forum for not holding elections in 2009, as promised. Watching the formalities, dozens of diplomats, academics and other observers curious about the new body's potential as a competitor for the region's lead political grouping, the Pacific Islands Forum. Fiji's Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola later downplayed the symbolism of the meeting for Fiji.

"RATU INOKE KUBUABOLA: This is on sustainable development. It's never been set up to compete with any existing regional organisation. Its something that's been lacking in the Pacific where the three sectors of government, private sector and NGOs can come for the first time and sit together and talk about sustainable development."

Kiribati president, Anote Tong, says there is a place for the new body with its green development agenda and it would not take over the Pacific Islands Forum.

ANOTE TONG: Its format is different. We're not sitting together around a table as leaders. We're actually talking, getting feedback and there's that interaction. So I believe it is healthy and needed to address the issues which are being raised here.

Chey Scovell of the Manufacturers Council of Papua New Guinea says by having business people at the forum as equal participants, there's more likelihood of getting strategies in place that businesses will accept.

CHEY SCOVELL: I think all too often we have these plans, these meetings. You have NGO groups, you have interest groups, but you don't have the people that are in the business of doing the doing. And they say 'We're going to set this target', and it's not achievable. I think the other thing that the private sector will bring to this dialogue is we will be able to put a check on the types of things that the public service mechanisms would perhaps put themselves up for and say, 'We don't think this is realistic'.

Tonga opposition MP, Dr Sitiveni Halapua, played an active role during the three days of talks, making a speech and asking questions from the floor.

He says the new body fills a gap by letting civil society and business in on decision-making in the region and he says its longevity depends on that.

SITIVENI HALAPUA: I think it is our responsibility to make sure that this arrangement remains that way because it could easily move in a different direction. But I feel empowered that I can speak my mind and be heard.

Also among observers, one of Fiji's paramount chiefs, the Tui Macuata, Ratu Wiliame Katonivere.

RATU WILIAME KATONIVERE: I'm just here as an observer and to learn about all the discussions that have been going on and it's been very fruitful, you know. It has given us a light and a way forward to take back to our communities.

Barry Coates of Oxfam New Zealand is no stranger to meetings like this. He says he's impressed by the equal value given to civil society groups like his. He says it's a much-needed opportunity for Pacific Island countries to talk amongst themselves without Australia and New Zealand at the table. But he says the PIDF needs the buy-in of other island states in order to be successful.

BARRY COATES: There's been a bit of a different tone to these meetings. There's been people speaking who are not the usual government speech (makers) and there's been less of a formal set piece series of speeches. So there's been a bit more dialogue and that really helps.

PNG's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill sent a cabinet minister to the meeting because he was in New Zealand this week where he downplayed the meeting's significance.

PETER O'NEILL: I think it's important as a region we do not have too many parallel organisations, we don't have enough of a population to manage. You know my views, it's important that we maintain the integrity of the Pacific Islands Forum.

Observers say western nations could be looking on the new body with some trepidation as smaller island states step up their lobbying for loss and damage as a result of climate change. The grouping is aiming to act as a channel for efforts by the Pacific bloc of Small Island States at the United Nations. Taholo Kami of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says it is time for the countries to have their own voice.

TAHOLO KAMI: I think there is a time when the big brother has to stand aside and say, let them talk in their language, let them see things through their eyes and come back and say this is the direction we want to go. It's part of the maturing of ... you know ... we're seeing 20, 30, 50 years of independence. And then people are starting to ask questions (like) do we need the space to develop? We're not in charge of our resources. At least this forum may provide the opportunity for that discourse to be held between Pacific Islanders.

Barry Coates of Oxfam says the PIDF will create pressure for reform at the Pacific Islands Forum, but others see it as a tactic by the Fiji regime to split up the more-established group. A spokesman for Fiji's main opposition grouping - the United Front for a Democratic Fiji - Mick Beddoes, says those representing democracies in the region should know better than to attend what he describes as a farce and a big hoopla about nothing, designed to bolster the regime.

MICK BEDDOES: Either these people are naive or they have no idea about what's going on in Fiji or they haven't got a conscience sufficiently strong to realise that every time they participate in something whereby the dictatorship of Fiji is involved that they are siding with the usurpers of our democracy against the wishes and the well-being of the people in the country of Fiji.

Speakers expressed strongly that the body should not become another talking shop and there was a good dose of cynicism among diplomats about the motives for Fiji of holding the meeting as the regime seeks to position Fiji and thumb the nose at what it sees as arrogant and domineering heavyweights - Australia and New Zealand. Fiji's Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, says the new body complements the Pacific Islands Forum, but Fiji's not interested in getting back into that group under the existing rules.

RATU INOKE KUBUABOLA: There needs to be some changes before we can go back in.

SALLY ROUND: Can you specify what those changes might be?

RATU INOKE KUBUABOLA: That everybody is equal in the Pacific Islands Forum. For example Australia and New Zealand, they need to decide whether they are a donor and also a member. If they are a donor then they stay out. Let the Pacific Island countries be members of the Pacific Island Forum, as was originally formed many years back.

And Ratu Inoke says there will be no exchange of top level diplomats between the three countries until at least after Fiji's elections.

RATU INOKE KUBUABOLA: I think they continue to campaign against Fiji in different fora and we have been told from reliable sources even from some of the leaders, they have been approached not to attend this meeting. They have told us that Canberra had asked them not to attend but they decided to attend and one of them said, 'Oh no. I've got Fijian blood, I need to be in Fiji for this meeting'.

That's a claim that PNG for one has denied. Before the final "Isa Lei" - the traditional Fijian farewell - Fiji's prime minister, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, took to the stage again to announce the setting up of a secretariat for the organisation, to be headquartered and funded initially by Fiji. He says it'll be independent, and staffed by all stakeholders from across the region.