So ran the header on Radio Australia’s Tokpisin News broadcast. The item related to John Howard’s advocacy of former DFAT First Assistant Sec – and 25 year Pacific veteran – Greg Urwin, to head the Pacific Forum secretariat.
Suva-based Pacific Islands magazine, in it’s August issue ran the sort of insightful backgrounder on Urwin’s candidacy that has been almost totally absent from Australian media coverage. In general, Howard’s agenda has been framed here as belligerent, insensitive bullying, an image supported by expedient soundbites from the ruling Pacific oligarchies, keen to maintain their born-to-rule access to old boys network jobs.
“It should be a Pacific person” said Cook Islands PM, Dr Robert Woonton, in reference to Urwin’s candidacy for the Secretary-Generalship. It has been a ‘Pacific person’ – a Tongan noble, Mahe Tupounia, twice, two PNG government appointees, a former deputy prime minister of Tuvalu, Henry Naisali; and a former president of Kiribati, Ieremia Tabai – since the Forum was established in 1971. In that time the Forum has achived pretty much zippo and that’s the way – “the Pacific Way” – the rulers like it.
NZ is the current incumbent of the rotating Forum Presidency which gave Helen Clark the considerable advantage of neutrality in respect of the Secretary-Generalship, on the one hand and the not inconsiderable disadvantage of having to preside over the candidacy fray, on the other. The Forum has traditionally worked on consensus, which often means that the confronting of real challenge is discarded in favour of anodyne communiques and the important business of deciding where the leaders will junket to in order to compose the next set of anodyne communiques. In the meantime, corruption, incompetence, nepotism and autocratic and undemocratic inertia have continued to fester, adding to the already huge problems that the island states face.
Helen Clark was pretty unrestrained – not to mention relieved – in her enthusiasm for Urwin when she announced that he would be the next Secretary-General. After three days of intense negotiation – and the abandonment of consensus for the novel idea of a leaders’ vote – he emerged the winner, yesterday. “He’s an exceptional candidate” said Clark, with no genuflecting to the notion of “an outstanding field from whom anyone could been successful etc”. Even more surprisingly, she went on to warn “sections of the Australian media” against attempting to negatively spin Howard’s enthusiastic stumping for Urwin. While New Zealand has it’s clear differences with Australian foreign policy, on the subject of the Pacific and the urgent if not woefuly overdue need for proactive engagement with reality rather than illusion, you probably couldn’t slide a pandanus leaf between Canberra and Wellington.
And Mr Urwin is going to have his work cut out for him…..