Pacific pessimism premature

A young boy from Vanuatu. Photo by Wold Bank Photo Collection on flickr.
18 June 2014
A young boy from Vanuatu. Photo by Wold Bank Photo Collection on flickr.

Despite a history of hysterical headlines, Australian pessimism over the state of the Pacific is overstated, argues STEWART FIRTH.

Observers of Pacific Islands’ democracy and development veer between a narrative of crisis and a story of persistence.

Officially, Australia has mostly been attracted to the crisis way of looking at the Pacific. In 1993 the National Centre for Development Studies at The Australian National University produced an influential report called Pacific 2010: Challenging the Future.

The report reflected government thinking about the Pacific at that time, and it was deeply pessimistic. It predicted a nightmare future for the people of the Pacific Islands unless their governments did what Australia was doing – reduced their public sectors, cut tariffs, encouraged private enterprise and allowed maximum freedom to foreign investors. If these measures were not adopted, the report warned, rapid population growth in the Pacific would mean falling living standards, decaying schools, urban squalor and unemployment.

Twenty years on from the appearance of the Pacific Islands’ best-known crisis narrative, the region has defied predictions by earning a good report card on democracy and a middling one on economic growth and development.

Pacific democracy
Democracy in the formal sense, defined as a constitutional system of government with regular elections and popularly mandated changes of government, has been the norm in the Pacific Islands since independence. A predictable cycle of Pacific elections takes place and new governments are formed democratically.

Democracy defined more exactingly as a responsive system of government largely free of corruption is less common. The 2012 Papua New Guinea elections revealed the dominance of money politics in determining electoral outcomes. All over the country the elections were bought, with politicians paying voters on a differential scale for first-, second- and third-preference votes.

Frequent changes of government characterise a number of Pacific polities, not only in Melanesia, where political parties are weak but also in Polynesia and Micronesia and in the territories as well as the independent states. But frequently changing governments are not necessarily unresponsive ones, nor do they point to state incapacity.

A voter makes their mark in Papua New Guinea's elections. Photo by AFP. 

Nevertheless, democracy has failed in one Pacific country – Fiji. Nowhere else in the region is a military force the central player in national politics, and nowhere else,  with the exception of New Caledonia, has racial division been so central to politics.

Uniquely in the Pacific, Fiji’s post-independence political history has been punctuated by military coups and abrupt abrogations of the constitution, leading to a succession of political and legal orders that have undermined the faith of the people of Fiji in the ability of their leaders to create a lasting stability.

As constitutions have come and gone, the very idea that a constitution is a permanent and hallowed set of fundamental rules has withered. And after 2009, the last time a constitution was abrogated, Fiji lost media freedom, key civil liberties and judicial independence, which were replaced by the oppressions of military government and a succession of decrees until the liberalisation that began in 2012.

Fiji’s new constitution is imposed from above and designed to preserve the dominant position of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces in the country’s political affairs. The constitution makes one overdue reform long promised by Bainimarama. The new voting system – open list proportional representation for a parliament of 50 seats – at last breaks from the communal voting systems which have institutionalised racial division and race-based political representation since before independence.

Frank Bainimarama has declared elections for Fiji in 2014. Photo by AFP.

Yet as my ANU colleague Anthony Regan points out, few other features of the new constitution would be welcomed by those seeking a true democracy in Fiji.

“The concentration of power in the hands of the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General is remarkable,” says Regan. “They effectively control appointments of all judges and all constitutional office-holders and Commissions. The PM can appoint as many MPs as he/she wishes to the Cabinet”.

Decrees can continue to be made by the current government until Parliament meets after the election, and all Decrees are superior to the Constitution. Nevertheless, Bainimarama has stood down as military commander, he will stand for the elections as a civilian and the elections will go ahead later this year. Fiji will emerge not exactly as a democratic state, but as a more democratic one that it has been since 2006.

Development and economic growth
Twenty years after Pacific 2010, most of the Pacific is in better shape than the pessimists predicted it would be by now but in worse shape than the optimistic ones hoped.

Even in PNG – the region’s least effective state – economic growth, though not development (these are two different things), has surpassed expectations. Why, in the face of such doom-saying, have things turned out this way?

With the wisdom of hindsight, we can now see that the Australian experts of the early 1990s made a number of mistakes.

Firstly, they under-estimated the positive economic impact of remittance flows on Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, Niue and Cook Islands. This is a major theme in the situation of the contemporary Pacific, as we shall see from the Populations on the Move session on Wednesday.

Secondly, they placed excessive faith in good governance to produce economic growth. It may be a good thing but it is only weakly related to economic growth.

Thirdly, they could not foresee that trouble in the region – in the context of 9/11 and the Bali bombings - would boost development assistance and elicit a decade-long regional intervention in Solomon Islands.

Fourthly, although the Chinese economy was growing, they did not expect China and East Asia more generally to become so central to the economic and aid prospects of the Pacific Islands.

It’s worth considering in-depth the developments that boosted the flow of development assistance to Pacific Islands in the last decade. Essentially, trouble in the Pacific generates aid to the Pacific, especially from Australia, which has a strategic interest is the security, stability and cohesion of its immediate neighbourhood.

Australia doubled its development assistance to the region in 2004-05 and increased its aid to PNG by a third, beginning a process that continued under the Rudd government elected in 2007. That surge in Australian aid, beginning with the government of John Howard and sustained by those of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, is now over.

Trouble in the Pacific has receded, so aid has receded, and the Abbott government is in a mood of retrenchment. The government has abolished AusAID as a separate agency, incorporating it into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and made large cuts to the aid budget, exempting only PNG and Nauru, the two Pacific countries with detention centres for refugees who attempted to get to Australia by boat. Aid cuts applied to all other Pacific countries and to Pacific regional programs.

Aid to the Pacific is receding. Photo by US Pacific Command on flickr. 

As if to symbolise the shift of the Pacific towards Asia, China increased assistance to the Pacific just as Australia reduced its own. At the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in Guangzhou in 2013, attended by representatives from Micronesia, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue and Fiji, China offered them a new soft loan facility of $US1 billion for use on roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure, plus another $US1 billion on commercial terms.

The rest of the world is more interested in the Pacific than it used to be, a situation that is producing a new confidence in Pacific leaders.

PNG is contemplating setting up new diplomatic missions in Tel Aviv, Shanghai and Paris to expand its present network, which includes not only Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, the USA and a number of Pacific countries, but also Singapore, Japan, South Korea, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, the UK and Belgium.  PNG leaders have even talked of their country becoming an aid donor to their Pacific neighbours and have promised to help pay for the expense of the 2014 Fiji elections.

Fiji is also diversifying its diplomatic connections. In the last few years new Fiji missions have appeared in Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea, North Korea and the UAE, and Fiji joined the G77+China, becoming its chair for 2013. At the same time, Fiji has supported and created regional organisations that owe nothing to the Pacific Islands Forum or to Australia and New Zealand. Fiji’s central aim has been to reduce the influence of Australia and New Zealand in the Pacific Islands while building its own.

The Melanesian Spearhead Group is more active politically than at any time since its formation in the 1980s, and Bainimarama’s Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), funded in part by UAE and Kuwait, met for the first time in Fiji in 2013. Not every Pacific leader attended the Fiji meeting– Prime Minister Peter O’Neill of PNG was not there – but it symbolised a new spirit of Pacific independence. The chief guest was Xanana Gusmao, Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, which donated $US250, 000 towards the costs of the new PIDF secretariat, to be based in Suva.

The Pacific plays more than ever before on a world stage. Not many people know, for example, that there are Papua New Guinean peacekeepers in Darfur and South Sudan, or that 600 Fijian peacekeepers are with the UN Disengagement Observer Force on the Golan Heights border between Israel and Syria, and that they have been partly equipped by Russia, or that more than 170 students from Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Vanuatu and Tuvalu have enrolled in medical training courses in Cuba since 2008.

Australian pessimism of the 1990s about the Pacific was excessive, as it often is.

Emeritus Professor Stewart Firth, from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, is one of many scholars, experts and policymakers speaking at the 2014 State of the Pacific Conference hosted by the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program at ANU,18-19 June.

This article is an edited version of a paper in the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia program working paper series.



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