By Selwyn Manning
Australian Prime Minister John Howard has won a major victory in his goal to Australianize the Pacific. Howard brokered agreement among Pacific Island leaders to make his man Greg Urwin into the next secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum.
Urwin will replace Papua New Guinean Noel Levi, who has been secretary-general for six years, in January 2004.
But it took a major break of Pacific Islands Forum protocol for Urwin to succeed. Forum leaders abandoned the consensus approach to selection which has been customary, and elected Urwin via secret ballot.
The break in protocol demonstrates just how divided the Pacific Islands members were over who would get the Secretary General’s position. With New Zealand as host nation adopting a neutral stance opinions became polarised.
Inter Islands rivalry between Samoa and Tonga helped Howard push ahead to secure Urwin as the forum’s new secretary general.
Political purists would say Samoa and/or Tonga ought to have backed a strong single Pacific candidate, established a consensus among the smaller islands nations prior to the Forum starting. But purism is an ideal not enjoyed in South Pacific politics. One must be reminded that an inter Islands feud between the two has boiled away for generations.
Both Samoa and Tonga rallied behind their own respective candidates. By doing so, they each drove a wedge between each other’s ability to secure a Pacific Islands born person at the Forum’s helm. Nauru had earlier withdrawn its own candidate.
Before the votes were struck six islands states, including the Cook Islands, publicly opposed Urwin’s candidacy. But Howard’s backroom deals and cocktail schmooze pushed Urwin to the fore.
Urwin became the majority’s choice due to he having a long and “respected” career as an Australian diplomat specialising in Pacific affairs, as high commissioner to Fiji, Samoa and Vanuatu. And perhaps equally as important, Urwin is married to a Samoan. This gave Urwin a defining edge, an a place for Samoa to rest with its mana intact.
Later, Howard refused to expand on how he won the vote. Replying to journalists: “He is Samoan based, he has strong family links with the Pacific, and he’s a person who is not just some blow in from Canberra,” Howard said.
The Urwin appointment sends several signals to Pacific nations as well as to significant global players further abroad.
Prior to the Forum Australia signalled its intent to drive a “pooled regional governance” plan for the Pacific. Most significant within the framework would be Australia becoming lead-nation in the Pacific, becoming the Pacific’s police state, driving ahead with a single currency [Howard would prefer an Australian backed currency over a universal Euro-Styled note], and a federal structured Pacific that would eventually speak with a single voice.
Howard was keen to get his vision onto the agenda at this year’s Pacific Islands Forum, but eased off the peddle when the New Zealand government dug in against the single currency plan and recoiled at the notion of a dominant Australianized Pacific.
Shrued: Australia’s Prime Minister John Howard ended the South Pacific Forum in Auckland with what he wanted, his man Urwin as the new Pacific Forum Secretary General.
On the eve of the crucial Secretary General vote, Howard cooled off the idea. But then, with his man Urwin in Samoa and in the new job, he said: “We are very engaged in the Pacific. I have made that very clear. I’ve stated views on it. We’re here to help, we’re here to provide whatever guidance we can. But we’re also here to work in partnership with our friends.
“We’ve done that in the Solomons, we’re willing to do it in other areas. I’m very keen on pushing concepts or regional governance. You’re aware of that. We can together do things that we can’t do on our own,” John Howard said.
That stance was revealing. Howard was signalling to the United States, as well as to anyone else who takes an interest, that he is now in control of the Pacific. The United States, as well as the European Union, France, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan are all among nations poised to begin post-forum dialogues in Auckland, at ministerial level, from Monday August 18 through to Tuesday August 19.
New Zealand is influential, as host nation held the agenda strings but as host convention largely prevented it from taking an alternative position over crucial selections. New Zealand’s government angers at Australia’s foreign affairs arrogance, for example over how Australia unilaterally decided how the Solomon Islands crisis would be dealt to. Over that instance a multilateral non-aggression pact document was hastily signed by New Zealand, Australia and five other Pacific nations. But the document was signed not only on Australian turf in Townsville only hours before the main contingent leaving, but also on Australian terms.
Pacific fears, as was detailed in the New Zealand Herald, realise that Australia sides with the United States view that individual countries can unilaterally move against a so called “rogue state” without a United Nations mandate. Australia joined the USA in doing just that over Iraq in March.
It must be pointed out, Australia moved to beach armed forces in the Solomons, to quell violence there, before the United Nations agreed it necessary, and arguably before the Solomon Islands government requested it do so. Certainly that request was eventually forthcoming, and indeed so was a United Nations ‘well done boys’ message from its Secretary General Kofi Annan once Solomon Islands security had been re-established.
Was Australia’s advance over the Solomons fair?
But this batting off the front-foot style of Australian foreign policy leaves New Zealand and other Pacific Islands nations concerned.
But as everyone attending this Pacific Islands Forum in Auckland has discovered, differences are most often won over with a signed cheque, a topped up glass, and a carefully worded whisper exchanged at a cocktail evening at day’s end.