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A Tale Of Two Apecs - Mark Revington




Just in case it hadn't penetrated the dim depths that politicians suspect pass as brains among much of the fourth estate, Jenny Shipley drums it into our thick skulls at the final Apec press conference. APEC. IS. IMPORTANT.

Her dress is a regal purple, her brooch dazzles under the spotlights, her eyes - well, they dazzle in their determination from this distance, two rows back in the stalls of the ASB Theatre at the Aotea Centre (enter from level 2). Alone, centre stage, chair of Apec 99, delivering the leaders' declaration. She looks powerful, assured, glowing even.

Our Prime Minister, fresh from the glory of hobnobbing with some of the world's most powerful men, among the relics of the past at the Auckland Museum. Those carefully modulated, soothing tones, assuring us that everything is all right because important people have been discussing important affairs.

"- and because this [Apec] meeting exists, a number of important discussions and announcements have been able to occur. There are, of course, other important bilateral issues that happened, again, because Apec exists. There have been some critically important bilateral discussions, not the least of which is the discussion between China and the United States on matters relating entirely to them. It is important that Apec does create an opportunity for leaders to come together, that important bilateral matters can be addressed in this setting, and I believe it is in the mutual benefit of Apec economies and their people that these opportunities are taken up. Finally, perhaps, and I say - and this is an important matter this year, because Apec exists and because a particular crisis existed this year in 1999 in the form of East Timor - we were able to allow many leaders and many ministers to discuss this incredibly important issue as well as address the important issues on the formal Apec agenda -"

Important. Apec. We were in safe hands as the Shipley of state sailed on. Some days earlier, in a clammy-handed, nightmarish moment, my dim brain may have missed something. They had closed down the central city, repainted the traffic lights, replaced the rubbish bins, and given half of the country's cops a working holiday in downtown Auckland. Ringed the town hall and Aotea Centre with a temporary steel mesh fence, the entrances guarded by police, security guards and metal detectors. Helicopters hovered. It was, as Internet journalist Selwyn Manning observed, a little like Apocalypse Now. Without the trees. The government wouldn't spend $40 to $50 million and go to all this effort for something trivial. Would it?

Apec - it's the economy, stupid, as Don "Diplomat" McKinnon pointed out, while insisting that East Timor would be discussed in the margins, not on the official agenda. Days of diplomacy and arm-twisting behind closed doors, charting a safe course for the good ship Free Trade past shoals such as the late, unlamented Asian economic meltdown.

Press conferences are Apec's public face. One day I went to three, which illustrated that the Earth moves in mysterious ways when you get this many leaders together. The first, with Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta, would prove to be a fulcrum. The Earth moves, but it's usually the slow grinding of tectonic plates. East Timor was the catastrophic landslide.

Just an hour after he stepped off a plane from the US, Ramos Horta held his first press conference, in the Aotea chapel of the Methodist Mission, a church mission that had been doubling as an anti-Apec protest centre, just across Queen St from Apec Central. He stood to one side of the altar, behind a small lectern, wearing the familiar collarless white shirt and black jacket that make him look like a priest. He looked exhausted. His dark eyes were intense and alive behind his glasses. His people were dying. A woman stood behind him holding a banner that read: "East Timor Still Dying To Be Free". It would frame Ramos Horta in every lens. He was on attack, calling for immediate humanitarian aid to East Timor. How could it be a declaration of war if Australia intervenes? he asked. It would be a humanitarian intervention to save lives. The international community shouldn't wait for an authority from Jakarta that doesn't exist. "It didn't wait for Milosevic and, remember, Kosovo was an integral part of Serbia."

Someone asked whether he feared for his security while in New Zealand. "I haven't thought about that," he said. "This is one of the safest countries in the world."

The press clumped in a semicircle in front of him with their cameras and tape. Behind them was the public. This was passion and eloquence. You didn't need an Apec security pass. It was open to anyone. The press weren't the only ones asking dumb questions.

Just behind him sat veteran East Timor supporter Maire Leadbetter, and Joao Carrascalao, leader of the CNRT in Australia, an umbrella organisation for the East Timor resistance. He fled East Timor in 1975, he told me later, and spent 20 years teaching engineering at Sydney Polytech. Many of his family were still in East Timor, hiding in the hills. He was staying at a Ponsonby B&B.

Next, the ASB Theatre for the Apec Ministerial Meeting Media Conference, chaired by Don McKinnon, and Lockwood Smith, who did his best to sound like an uncommonly patient teacher as he explained that the ministers had agreed to press for an end to agricultural subsidies. The place was jammed with hundreds of journalists and Apec delegates. Everyone wanted to know about East Timor, except for the China-Taipei journalists, who proved so inconvenient to McKinnon that he cut the press conference short. (The island democracy is officially regarded as a province of China, but a separate economy.) "I've been to nine Apecs," McKinnon thundered, in reply to yet another pesky journalist. "They are becoming more and more dominated in the press conferences by journalists from China-Taipei. We don't need a constant run of questions from China-Taipei." The faces of the China-Taipei delegation stiffened in disapproval.

The last press conference I went to that Friday was pure Hollywood. US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov at the Stamford Plaza Hotel. A gig not to be missed. Lots of crewcut men with plastic things sticking out of their ears. They herded us into a holding room. They let us out, five by five. A sniffer dog inspected our cameras, bags and cellphones. The men searched the linings. I moved towards the Stamford Ballroom. "Just a minute, sir," said the Secret Service agent while he waited for our group. "Have a good time," he said, as we filed in.

The US journalists sat in the front rows on one side, the Russians on the other. The back of the ballroom was a wall of television cameras. Albright and Ivanov were having a working dinner. They would let us in on some of the conversation. He looked like an implacable Eurocrat, with his sombre face and dark suit. She was in red, with a huge brooch. The Undertaker and the Battleaxe, as one journalist immediately dubbed them. These were the two old Cold War foes. Over dinner they talked nukes and the new Russian gangs. Ivanov allowed himself a small smile when the interpreter failed to pick up a nuance, and quietly corrected him. This big show of searches and interpreters seemed to speak as much of control as it did of security and language concerns. The New York Times asked Ivanov about the effect of Russian money laundering on US-Russian relations. It was an international phenomenon, Ivanov replied, and the two countries were co-operating. A Russian reporter asked about nuclear arms treaties. Albright said that the US was concerned about rogue nations. President Clinton was committed to limited missile development, but not deployment. Ivanov said it was obvious that both Russia and the US should reduce the number of missiles they hold. There was no talk of East Timor, or Apec. The ghost of Dr Strangelove was in the air. It was a strange and surreal episode on the sideline.

By the end of the weekend, East Timor overshadowed everything. It was the main show. It had shifted from the margins to centre stage. Ramos Horta moved on from the press conference in the chapel to meetings with all the leaders who mattered, including Jenny Shipley. Clinton upped the stakes. Indonesia finally agreed to let a United Nations peacekeeping force into East Timor. It was, as Shipley noted at Apec's end, an incredibly important issue. And Apec leaders had agreed to a common front before the all-important WTO round in Seattle in November. The Earth had moved. The tectonic plates were in motion, although, as always, it may be a while before anyone really notices.


- Republished with permission from the Listener Magazine - see

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