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As Henry Puna takes the reins at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Dame Meg Taylor has ended her term as Secretary General after more than six years in the job.

In an interview with Islands Business (subscribers only), Taylor says: “I do wish my successor Henry Puna the very best wishes. He has very challenging times ahead of him.”

Throughout two terms as Secretary General between January 2015 and May 2021, Taylor had to juggle competing local and international pressures. Her departure comes at a time of increased geopolitical interest in the region and widespread debate about the capacity of regional institutions to respond. Incoming Secretary General Henry Puna faces an unprecedented challenge after the withdrawal of nearly one third of the Forum membership, amid concern over his election to head the Forum Secretariat.

Despite this, Taylor has re-oriented the regional organisation in the midst of a climate emergency, a global health and economic crisis and rising US-China competition. The adoption of the Forum’s “Blue Pacific” framework gives greater prominence to regional perspectives on climate, the oceans and development. At their 2019 summit in Funafuti, Forum leaders launched a consultation process for a “2050 Blue Pacific Continent Strategy”, which Secretary General Puna must now bring to life.

In the decade before she took office, the Forum’s agenda was framed by the 2005 “Pacific Plan for Strengthening Regional Integration and Cooperation.” After widespread criticism of the Pacific Plan, it was reviewed in 2013 by a high profile team led by former PNG Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta.

The final Morauta Review was sharply critical of the Plan and its technocratic shopping list of priorities: “It is very difficult to see how the Pacific Plan or the processes surrounding it are – now – driving regional integration with the scope, pace and scale intended in its original framing. Confidence in the Pacific Plan and some of the institutions around it has fallen to the point where some observers question their survival.”

The Morauta Review stressed the need for inclusivity and political settlement of divisive issues: “It is a matter of reaffirming the role of politics in Pacific development and how political choices are prosecuted through the region’s peak political body.”

Opening up to community

Taylor’s appointment as Secretary General at the 2014 Forum in Palau was a key part of the response to this crisis of regionalism. In contrast to her predecessor, Dame Meg was much more engaged with the media, and sought more extensive engagement between policy makers, business groups and church and civil society organisations (CSOs). She notes: “I was able to forge a way for civil society to have a role and have a voice. I owe a lot to them for the support that they gave me.”

This was initially accomplished through the Framework for Pacific Regionalism, managed by a Specialist Sub-Committee on Regionalism (SSCR). This structure, unloved by some governments and now defunct, called for submissions from civil society and the private sector, opening the door for citizens to promote agenda items for Forum leaders to discuss (including “sensitive” issues like West Papua).

“There needed to be an opportunity for civil society to have a conversation with leaders during the PIF week,” Taylor explains. “We started off very small with a breakfast with the troika leaders. Then it was Tuilaepa, the Prime Minister of Samoa at the time, who said ‘when the meeting comes to Samoa, we’ll have everybody there, all the leaders.’ That’s when it took off and you’ve got a structured dialogue now during the PIF week with private sector and civil society.”

One effect of the Forum’s opening was to undercut the momentum of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF), created by Voreqe Bainimarama during Fiji’s suspension from Forum activities between 2009-14. PIDF welcomed nonstate actors as participants, but Taylor argues that the Forum’s “CSO and business engagement was not to counter the PIDF, but came from the recommendations of the Morauta Review and the need for inclusivity. After political settlement, inclusivity was Morauta’s second most important recommendation to the leaders, which gave me the political support to engage.”

Fiji’s re-integration into the Forum came after national elections in 2014. The Bainimarama government was wooed back, initially at ministerial level and then with direct involvement of the Prime Minister at the 2019 leaders meeting in Funafuti. With Fiji hosting this year’s leaders’ meeting, Bainimarama will now take the role of Forum chair, and Taylor notes: “I anticipate that Fiji will use their role to ensure that the interests of the Pacific are heard in every venue that they can be, on climate change, climate finance and the oceans.”

Another step that Taylor sees as a lasting achievement was her effort to encourage Forum Island Countries to increase their annual contribution to the Forum Secretariat (a step towards reducing Australian and New Zealand influence over the regional headquarters).

“When I first arrived, people would say ‘Oh, that organisation is just owned by Australia and New Zealand’,” she said. “One of the important issues has been the fact that the majority percentage of contribution to the Pacific Island Forum primary budget is now made by the Forum Island Countries, not by Australia and New Zealand. That took a lot of work and I want to give credit to my former colleague Cristelle Pratt and our finance team that we were able to achieve that.

“That’s a huge step forward and with the challenges we are facing now, I hope that this will always be maintained. If you put the money into an institution that you believe in, then you can call the shots and that’s really important.”

The Blue Pacific

During Taylor’s two terms of office, Forum leaders have adopted a series of declarations that now guide regional priorities: the Blue Pacific agenda (2017), the Boe Declaration on Regional Security (2018), the Kainaki Lua Declaration for Urgent Climate Action Now (2019) and the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19 (2020).

Taylor also served as Pacific Oceans Commissioner, highlighting the central focus on oceans policy and maritime boundaries in the Blue Pacific agenda. The proposed Pacific Resilience Fund will create a key structure to guarantee resources for disasters and climate action. As Cyclones Harold and Yasa battered the region in the midst of the pandemic last year, Taylor said: “This climate change exacerbated disaster is a stark reminder that notwithstanding the current threats and impacts of COVID-19, climate change remains the biggest threat facing humanity today. We must not lose sight of this reality.”

Taylor was the first woman to serve as Forum Secretary General and began her first term supported by two women as deputies: Andie Fong Toy and Cristelle Pratt. During her time in office, many more women have served in leadership positions across the region – as Presidents, Prime Ministers and deputy PMs (Ligeard, Heine, Ardern, Mataafa); Foreign Ministers (Bishop, Payne, Mahuta); heads of CROP agencies (Taylor, Tupou-Roosen, Clark, Hattori with deputies Pratt, Fong Toy, Aumua, Chu Shing); and UN Ambassadors in New York (Moses, Uludong, Kabua, Chigiyal) and Geneva (Falemaka, Khan, Jeremiah, Tudong, De Brum).

There’s a long way to go before women are equally represented in most Pacific parliaments, but change is in the air.

Forum tensions

Despite all these initiatives, longstanding tensions in Pacific regionalism were highlighted by the long delay in appointing Taylor’s replacement as Forum Secretary General.

This messy process was complicated by the postponement of the 2020 Forum in Vanuatu, due to COVID restrictions – it’s hard to operate the Pacific Way on Zoom. Working online, Forum chair Kausea Natano, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, was unable to forge a consensus over Taylor’s successor last year, and the election of Henry Puna was only finalised at an online Special Leaders Retreat last February.

After their joint candidate for the position, Ambassador Gerald Zackios of the Republic of Marshall Islands, was unsuccessful, five Micronesian member states followed through on their threatened withdrawal from the Forum. The Forum troika has begun a dialogue with the breakaway governments, but more than talk seems necessary to rebuild regional unity.

One factor in this crisis was the significant turnover of national leaders since Taylor was appointed at the 2014 Forum leaders retreat in Palau. By the end of her term, the only President or Prime Minister remaining from those who chose her as Secretary General – Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi – was facing his own transition in Samoa.

Over the last six years, the Forum Secretariat has continued to juggle sensitivities amongst member countries over diplomatic alignments and the issue of self-determination, with competing pressures over China / Taiwan, Indonesia / West Papua and PNG / Bougainville. The balancing act between realpolitik and addressing community concern over human rights and democratic norms has bedevilled the Forum Secretariat. Church and civil society groups drove West Papua onto the Forum agenda, where it remains, and Taylor acknowledges: “Youth in the region and certain segments of society are much more aware of what’s going on in West Papua than we are.”

Despite welcome aid flows and technical assistance from Australia, successive Coalition governments have also blocked a co-ordinated regional response to the climate emergency (as well as other priorities, such as decolonisation, nuclear disarmament and trade). The bitter climate debate at the 2019 Forum highlights the difficulty of forging a consensus on the climate emergency, despite its central importance for the region.

Working together

Last year, as Pacific governments were focused on the domestic response to the COVID pandemic, Taylor sought to promote collective action. Initially, the creation of the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway assisted regional co-ordination, but countries later went their own way, as major powers competed through PPE deliveries and vaccine diplomacy. She laments: “During COVID, I saw multilateralism virtually disappear. All these people who talk about the importance of multilateralism, where were they? What we did see was a real increase in bilateralism. Bilateral and strategic interests were very much at play.”

In spite of collective action around the Blue Pacific agenda, there are also tensions amongst other CROP members, such as leadership disputes at the University of the South Pacific, or the recommendation of Forum Foreign Ministers that the Pacific Islands Development Program be removed from CROP membership (an axe stayed by the delayed leaders’ meeting last year).

As Henry Puna took office last month, Forum Secretariat staff were hard at work on major research papers about the social and economic costs of the COVID pandemic, to present to ministers and leaders in coming weeks. But the Secretariat must also complete papers on the appointment process for the Secretary General, as part of rebuilding the region’s premier political structure. Dame Meg has navigated the canoe through many rocks and shoals, but there are still dark storm clouds on the horizon.

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