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New Secretary General for Pacific Islands Forum

New Secretary General for Pacific Islands Forum

Article for USP Beat by Sandra Tarte, Senior Lecturer, History/Politics, USP.

The appointment of Mr Greg Urwin to the position of Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat marks an important milestone in the history of the regional organization. Much attention and debate has focused on the implications of an Australian, rather than a Pacific Islander, holding this position. So what is the significance of this appointment and what are the likely ramifications for the Forum and for the region?

When the Australian Government nominated Mr Urwin in 2002 for the Secretary General post, it broke with established practice in arguing that any Forum member country (including Australia and New Zealand) could put forward a candidate. Moreover the position should be decided primarily on merit rather than on political grounds (such as the candidate’s nationality). On one level this argument is perfectly sound. No one would disagree that a position as pivotal as the Forum Secretary General demands the very best candidate available to the region. But the disquiet that greeted the Australian decision last year to push Mr Urwin’s candidature underscores the fact that this issue is more complex and sensitive than that.

It should be acknowledged that this is not the first time an Australian has held the top job in a regional organization. In the late 1990s, an Australian – Dr Bob Dunn – headed the Noumea-based South Pacific Commission (renamed during his tenure as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community). But unlike the SPC, the Pacific Islands Forum has always been an organization of independent and self governing island states, with Australia and New Zealand. It is the pre-eminent political organization in the region and, for Pacific island countries, the Forum is also synonymous with their political empowerment as sovereign states.

It was Pacific island leaders who established the Forum in 1971 and who subsequently decided to invite Australia and New Zealand to join them as full members. As Fiji’s first Prime Minister and a ‘founding father’ of the Forum, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, explained at the time:

‘The Forum was called to answer the need of small newly independent island nations to reach out beyond the confines of their own shores to share the common experience of Government. It also helped meet the wish of New Zealand and Australia to establish a post-colonial relationship with the island states’.

Thirty two years on this ‘post-colonial’ relationship between the Pacific islands and Australia and New Zealand seems to have reached a cross-roads. The indications are that – like the SPC in the 1990s – Australia sees the need for a major shake-up in the Forum Secretariat. This is the reason for its support for Mr Urwin as Secretary General. Both the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers have called for a more pro-active secretary general. Australia has also, in the past two years, stepped up its political engagement with the region. This is reflected in the attendance by Prime Minister John Howard at the past two Forum leaders summits and Australia’s initiative to intervene in the Solomon Islands. The Australian Government is also reportedly supporting proposals for further ‘regional amalgamation and consolidation’ in such areas as monetary policy, transportation and law and order.

Against this background, Mr Urwin’s biggest challenge as the head of the Forum Secretariat is likely to be ensuring that Pacific island countries retain a sense of ownership over the Forum agenda, and over the Forum itself. This sense of ownership has been eroded in recent years as economic, political and security initiatives of the Forum seem to be increasingly driven by Australia and New Zealand (who also control the Forum purse strings). The appointment of an Australian to the Secretary General position will make it harder to reverse this trend, especially if he is expected by his sponsors to be more pro-active and lead a major overhaul of the organization. But unless Pacific island countries share a common sense of ownership over the Forum’s agenda, their commitment to its policies and goals will diminish.

Some of the Forum’s Dialogue Partners may also now be wondering who or what the Forum represents. It is no secret that some Partners have long been uncomfortable with Australian and New Zealand influence in the Forum, since it overshadows the Pacific island and developing country nature of the organization. The inclusion of two developed countries in the Forum distinguishes it from other regional organizations in the developing world. While this may enhance the political and financial clout of the Forum, it also complicates its international role and identity.

The evident desire of Pacific island leaders to have ‘one of their own’ at the helm of the Forum Secretariat indicates, perhaps, a deepening sense of unease that they may be losing control of the organization they founded. But Pacific island leaders need to also reflect on what it is the Forum represents to them and what they want the Forum to achieve. If they are not obtaining the results they want, then they must ask themselves why. The fact that the position of Secretary General could not be decided in the ‘Pacific Way’ of consensus should not be blamed on Australian manoeuvrings alone. It may also be attributed to the fact that the island countries themselves could not agree on a common candidate.

There is a tendency to treat these positions as a national perk rather than a common regional good. This also applies to the venue or location for regional organizations. In recent years Pacific island countries could not agree on who should host the soon to be established Tuna Commission. The issue was finally decided in favor of the Federated States of Micronesia but only after a protracted voting process that split the region.

As Greg Urwin embarks on his tenure as Secretary General it is perhaps time for the Pacific island countries to reaffirm their commitment to regionalism and to the Forum. This will require recognizing that the continuing relevance of the Forum depends not just on what they individually receive in terms of perks and other benefits. It depends not just on who holds the top job. It also depends on how much countries are prepared to work together to shape their region and its place in the world.


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