The Fiji meeting would be a farce if it were funny

Helen Hughes

30 March 2011 | The Canberra Times

The Prime Minister (unelected) of Fiji, Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama has succeeded in attracting the leaders of the Melanesian Spearhead Group to an unofficial summit in Suva. The state dinner on Thursday 31st March would be merely a burlesque Gilbert and Sullivan scene if Papua New Guinea, Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu were not the poorest and worst governed independent states in the Pacific.

Commodore Bainimarama is the incipient Colonel Gaddafi of the Pacific. He is seeking regional and international endorsement. Indonesia and East Timor have been invited to be observers at this summit. Indonesia is attending to shut down the Melanesian Spearhead Group’s support for Papuan independence in Irian Jaya. Vanuatu, the Papuans’ sponsor, is not happy, but will be attending. The Solomons Government, beholden to Australian aid through the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands for its very existence, tried half-heartedly to postpone the summit, but Derek Sikua has already arrived in Suva together with Michael Somare who is enjoying a holiday from his official duties while he is suspended as Prime Minister for two weeks after being found guilty of 13 charges of filing incomplete or late returns on his assets and business dealings.

Bainimarama’s summit agenda is clear. He wants to annoy Australia. He also wants to gather enough international support to maintain Fiji’ participation in United Nations police actions because these are not only a major source of income for his armed forces but enable them to proceed to lucrative  private policing jobs wherever violence reigns. Being denied aid has become secondary because China has stepped in to support Bainimarama’s regime.

‘Melanesia’ is an anthropologists’ construct that has no economic and little other sense. It the arcane world of United Nations politics it was promoted as a ‘region’ to create jobs for bureaucrats, academics and other consultants. A trade agreement covers negligible actual trade. Pacific islands export raw materials to more developed economies and import manufactures and services from them.

Small elites in governments and the public services, expanding into business, have become wealthy in the Pacific’s poorest states. They live in modern houses, travel and educate their children so that they can pass on their wealth that often includes properties in Australia. But more than 80 percent of Papua New Guineans, Solomon Islanders and ni-Vanuatu exist at bare subsistence. Women work gardens, but most men are without meaningful work and without incomes. Education is minimal. Women die in childbirth in the bush. HIV/AIDS rages in Papua New Guinea. It is almost the only country in the world where the average length of life is declining. The Bainimarama government is reducing Fijians’ livings standards toward subsistence levels. Vanuatu is relapsing after a brief boost to the Port Villa economy from a United States Millennium aid grant.

Australia cannot be absolved from the Pacific disaster of which these four states are the leading edge. It played a major role in structuring post-independence parliaments and public services that have played a major role in the failure of development. It has been the dominant aid donor, but subsidized international aid agencies (the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Development Program) to lead aid programs that have paid for the elites’ emergence at the cost of living standards for islanders. This is the cause of government dysfunction. Most islanders have seen nothing of the more than $100 billion of aid – the highest per capita – that has flowed to the Pacific. Aid has widened the gap between the living standards in the independent Pacific states and the rest of the world. Only a few countries in Africa have done as badly.

Australian aid has created organisations such as the Pacific Islands Forum, its Francophone counterpart, the secretariat of the Pacific Community and the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Where one modest council would have sufficed, these organisations and their many offshoots have hundreds of highly remunerated positions for skilled Pacific Islanders, denying their services to their economic, health and other ministries. They also draw candidates away from business where they could get the experience necessary to foster indigenous entrepreneurship in the Pacific. Their many meetings maintain elite life styles by providing travel, hotel and shopping opportunities for politicians and officials.

It has been evident for years that Pacific meetings are not harmless but deflect energies away from development. Under Bainimarama’s leadership yet another seemingly harmless meeting is turning ugly. The Melanesian Spearhead Group’s shiny new headquarters in Vanuatu is a present from China. China’s advisors to Commodore Bainimarama will be keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings in Suva. If Australia has any interest in the south Pacific not becoming a Chinese lake, the Department of Foreign Affairs should be paying greater attention than collecting votes for a temporary seat on the Security Council.

Emeritus Professor Hughes is a senior fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies.

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