In or Out?

Back in my university days, I roomed with a lovely couple. Smart, talented, unorthodox—my kind of people. And stable, too. That meant a lot. But about a year in, I felt the tension rising. I’d hear them speaking in terse undertones, then stop suddenly when I entered the room.

Finally, I had to ask. Is everything okay?

“Not really. We’re either going to split up or get married.”

I was nonplussed. How could those be the only options? How could those options exist side by side?

Now, watching the messy, all-too-avoidable spat between members—and possibly, soon to be ex-members—of the Pacific Islands Forum, I think I finally get it.

There comes a time in every relationship where you’re either all in or all out. Some people in Australia and New Zealand may think that decision belongs to the Micronesian states alone. And based on that assumption, they’re no doubt working behind the scenes right now, doing their best to chivvy the northern alliance apart. Hoping that if they can induce one state—Nauru most likely—to go back on its promise to leave, lost cohesion will drive the others back into the fold.

But the catalysing moment here was not Micronesia’s decision to leave. It was the collective drift from consensus to majority rule. It’s unfair to blame the developed members of the Forum for driving that choice. But they can fairly be taken to task for failing to understand the countless subtle reasons why consensus, not plurality, is so important to the Pacific.

If there was a misjudgment on their part, this was it. They should have known they’d be seen as the deciding—and dividing—votes.

It’s up to them now to learn this lesson, and to take it to heart. If they’re going to be truly Pacific partners, they need to adopt Pacific ways.

It’s not enough to listen, consult, and weigh what’s best for the organisation if those considerations are only made at a distance, as some sort of benefactor. They’re not there as donors, or development partners. They’re there as members. They should not dominate (and by all accounts, they haven’t here). Neither, though, should they defer.

The decision to be in or out of the Forum belongs to Australia and New Zealand as much as it does to the bloc of five.

First, though, let’s get a few things straight. If we’re honest about it, Henry Puna is by all accounts a more qualified candidate than Gerald Zackios. But as Dr Transform Aqorau astutely pointed out, if we’re basing the selection only on merit, Jimmy Stevens is the one who stands out. He’s a deft facilitator and talented administrator with decades of experience at the regional level.

We can conclude that competence was not the sole criterion, but it wasn’t absent either. Certainly, it ranked above the principle of a sub-regional rota.

Secondly, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that Mr Puna’s selection was foisted on any individual member. Certainly not by Australia, and probably not by New Zealand.

If the Micronesians have a complaint—and they assuredly do—it’s with the Forum itself, not with any imagined interloper.

We can find fault with many of the individual players in this debacle. I mean, we’ve just witnessed our ship’s officers argue their vessel across miles of sunlit open ocean, right into the only reef in a thousand miles. There could not be a stronger argument for a clearer, more detailed and more transparent leadership selection process.

But new rules can only come once comity is restored. And that’s not something that’s going to happen in Canberra or Wellington. The last election to cause real division was that of Greg Urwin, whose candidacy was driven by John Howard. Many rightly complained about the ham-fisted manner in which it was handled. I was a newcomer to the Pacific at the time, but even I was aware of the ructions, and of the widespread perception that this was an Australian ploy to keep tabs on its Pacific neighbours.

It was Mr Urwin himself who saved the day. He did it by being one of the best Secretaries General the Forum has seen. He won his second term by acclamation, but was tragically struck down by cancer before he could complete it.

The current crisis will test Henry Puna’s mettle. It will also be a test, not just of the depth, but of the kind of commitment Australia and New Zealand are willing to make to the Forum.

As happens during any crisis, there’s a lot of pressure on Canberra and Wellington to Do Something. But what can they usefully do? They will almost certainly be cast an interlopers if they try to broker a step-down. Rightly or wrongly, it’s an age-old Pacific tradition to blame the outsider.

They can’t be just be some sort of benevolent Spirit Guide, either. They can’t pretend to be inert or neutral in this. They’re members just like everyone else.

Most importantly, they can’t cast this as an external matter. New Zealand knows this already. It has repeatedly reaffirmed its stance as a Pacific nation. And the sooner Australia quits thinking of the Pacific as a frontier, the better.

To my knowledge, Julie Bishop is the only Australian politician of note who has ever uttered the phrase ‘Australia is a Pacific nation.’ It’s not bordered by the Pacific. It’s in the Pacific.

It’s neither a passenger nor a benefactor. It’s a member. And the sooner it takes that membership seriously, the better. The sooner it learns to operate as a Pacific nation, surrounded by its Pacific peers, the better.

The answer here for Australia and New Zealand is not to Do Something, but rather to Be Something. They need to be good members. They need to treat their role as neither a sideshow nor a star turn. That means shouldering the duties and responsibilities, and wearing the results.

The sooner they accept that they’re in the Pacific, the sooner they’ll be able to do something about it.

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.