by Maureen Penjueli

SUVA (PANG)—The decision by the Micronesian Leaders to formally withdraw from the region’s premier political body, the Pacific Islands Forum within a year, is a move of tectonic scale whose impact which will reverberate across the region. The withdrawal comes on the back of a bruising leadership contest for the Secretary General (SG) of the Forum. That there was a contest at all was surprising, as the leadership should have been a mere formality, to support of 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 SG’s position amongst the 3 different subregions and for the sub-regions of Polynesia and Melanesia to honor 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 way 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 system 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 allows for the most difficult conversations to take place to understand the different positions with wise counsel a critical ingredient to ensure unity. 

The collective amnesia now being exposed by our Pacific island leaders that such an agreement doesn’t exist warrants interrogation on who stands to gain the most from this sudden departure of decision making? The obvious answer is New Zealand and Australia now that their de-facto candidate is in charge.

Henry Puna’s candidacy supported by the 6 Polynesian Leaders, with Wellington’s fingerprints all over his nomination, opened the floodgates and was swiftly followed by economist, Amelia Kinahoi Siamoma the only woman candidate of Tongan national, Dr Jimmy Rodgers (Solomon Islands) and former Fijian Foreign Minister Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, a very late entrant to the leadership race.

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 separates, or rather separated the Forum from other institutions. To change the rules to a merit-based decision only adds further salt to the wound, is to deny recognition of the merit of Micronesia on the regional and global stage by saying that the other Pacific island candidates are better than 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 in nature. What followed was a downward spiral with leaders happy to bend the rules by introducing new rules for political expediency, and that sets a dangerous precedent.  Some countries argued, to justify submitting alternative candidates, that a Micronesian could not fill the top two positions (SG, and Deputy) at the same time. Those who advanced that argument were perhaps conveniently oblivious to the precedence of previous cases of SG’s and Deputy SGs 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 till a face-to-face meeting later in 2021 and to extend Dame Meg Taylor’s term in the interim which would have worked if Tuvalu had been able to mobilise wider support from the region.  Fiji, as the host government rejected the proposals. 

The voting system, a system which the region has 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 8 to Micronesia’s Zackios and 9 to Polynesia’s’ Puna, reflects just how close the contest was. Three countries (PNG, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands) honoured our Pacific Way in the end by voting with the Micronesian block.  New Caledonia abstained, while the Polynesian block 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 the judgement of the bigger players in the region: Fiji, NZ and Australia.  Fiji withdrew its candidate much earlier in the race as it became very clear that it had no support for its candidate, an effect of humiliation for Fiji whose response was blunt. 

As the incoming Chair, Fiji took part in the SG’s election, at the same time it deported the Vice Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific without immediate public condemnation by Australia or New Zealand, is to signal that Fiji can act with impunity.  It maybe the Forum Leaders decision in 2009 to suspend Fiji by force, despite cautioning that this would go against our ‘Pacific Way’ of consensus building played a part in Fiji’s decision to deport an Australian citizen without regard to the fall out. The deportation shows how little regard Fiji has for those that stood with it in the Forum in 2009 as well as its ego centric view of regionalism. 

New Zealand and Australia may have miscalculated their level of influence. Neither Prime Ministers, Jacinda Arden nor her counterpart Scott Morrison attended in full the controversial Special Leaders Meeting last week.  Their notable absence at such a crucial moment challenges their leadership and commitment to our region.  Jacinda Arden along with Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne has since broken the silence recognizing the deep disappointment by the Micronesian leaders and have 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 as initial signs are not promising.  Many will lament the fracture of the regional architecture and many will argue that Micronesia’s ego’s is bruised, that it was a robust voting system in the end, and their decision to leave is an unfortunate one. 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…. PACNEWS 

Maureen Penjueli is the Coordinator of the Pacific Network on Globalisation, a regional NGO that promotes the right for Pacific islands to be self-determining. 

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