Jan 23, 2020 Last Updated 8:02 PM, Jan 21, 2020

Pacific predictions: 2020

As we enter not only a new year but a new decade, there is much to anticipate in the Pacific islands region.

Elections and domestic politics

A number of countries in the region will have elections during 2020: Kiribati, Niue, Palau and Vanuatu. The lingering discontent in Kiribati surrounding last year's switch in diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China may have an adverse impact on the incumbent government. In Vanuatu, Prime Minister Charlot Salwai Tabismasmas can point to having served a full parliamentary term as Prime Minister as a reason why he should remain in the top job but that may not be enough. The current premier of Niue, Sir Toke Talagi, has been suffering from ill health recently casting doubt on whether he will contest this year. Meanwhile, there have been calls for more young people to stand for parliament in that country.

Elsewhere in the region, some of what happened on the political scene in 2019 will continue to play out. In Marshall Islands, the Niitjela (Parliament) met last week and elected David Kabua as the new President further to last year's elections. In the immediate aftermath of Solomon Islands' switch from Taiwan to China last year there were indications that Prime Minister Sogavare might face a motion of no confidence. Whilst that did not eventuate in 2019, it remains on the cards for this year. In Papua New Guinea, this year will be crunch time for the Marape/Stephens government. The grace period that protects them from a challenge by way of a motion of no confidence comes to an end in late 2020 and there are already whispers of this paving a comeback for Peter O'Neill who was ousted from the PM's seat in the middle of last year.

There will also be elections in New Zealand, which will be closely watched given that country's closeness to the Pacific islands region, and the centrality of the Pacific Reset to the Ardern/Peters government's policy platform. The incumbent, Jacinda Ardern, was named Islands Business' 'Pacific Person of the Year' for 2019.

There are also significant elections taking place at sub-national level. In Vanuatu, the SANMA provincial elections taking place this month will be closely watched to see if they cast any light on what we can expect in the general elections in March. In Bougainville, there will be elections for President and government of the autonomous region. These elections will be heavily influenced by the results of last year's referendum on independence. However, there is currently some debate as to whether constitutional arrangements should be modified to allow the current President, John Momis, to run for another term. If this is what is to happen, the elections may need to be delayed.

Geopolitics

The last couple of years has seen a proliferation of policies, programs and photo opportunities as established and emerging Pacific partners seek to (re)establish their influence in the region. This is expected to continue through 2020, including by way of high- level visits to the region. For example, President Emmanuel Macron will visit French Polynesia in April. This is significant given France's displeasure at the territory having been reinscribed onto the UN's Decolonisation List.

The impacts of Solomon Islands and Kiribati switching their diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to the People's Republic of China will continue to be felt during 2020. We have already seen some developments with the visit of President Maamau of Kiribati to Beijing where he met with President Xi Jinping and signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative. Whilst the Taiwanese government has expressed confidence of the continuing relationship with Marshall Islands, Taipei will be watching President Kabua's early movements closely and has already announced a high-level visit to Majuro to help keep this relationship on track. Taiwan now has four allies in the region (Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu) and will continue to expend diplomatic and political capital to avoid losing any of them during 2020.

Independence and self-determination

Work will begin on the negotiations between the Bougainville and Papua New Guinea governments further to the result of last year's referendum which saw 97.7% of those who voted opt for independence. This will have to be ratified by the Parliament of PNG, under the terms of the Bougainville Peace Agreement. Positions on the future of Bougainville vary among PNG parliamentarians, including PM Marape's suggestion of 'economic independence'. Moreover, that agreement does not provide a timeline for how long this process should take. There will need to be a lot of work done around managing community expectations and keeping the flow of information moving in order to avoid frustration.

In New Caledonia, the second of a possible three referendums on independence from France will be held on 6 September. In 2018, the result was much closer than many had predicted with 43.6% voting in favour of independence, exceeding the 30% that some had been predicting.

After some considerable delay, the people of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia will hold an independence referendum in March.

The question of self-determination for West Papua and addressing issues of alleged human rights abuses by the Indonesian state will loom large during 2020, particularly during the meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders in Vanuatu. At last year's meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders Vanuatu lobbied successfully for the issue of West Papua to be given more prominence in the final communiqué than had been the case in the preceding couple of years. This includes a strong signal from leaders that they expect the government of Indonesia to facilitate a visit to the region by Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner

for Human Rights, in order for her office to report to leaders when they meet this year in Port Vila.

Meanwhile, in a region dominated by relatively young countries, Fiji will mark its 50th anniversary of becoming independent this year and Vanuatu its 40th.

Pacific regionalism

We have already seen a change of leadership at the oldest of the region's peak bodies, the Pacific Community (SPC). Dr Colin Tukuitonga was replaced as Director-General by Dr Stuart Minchin late last year. The meeting of the Pacific Islands Forum leaders to be held in Vanuatu in August will be Dame Meg Taylor's last as Secretary-General. By convention, it is Micronesia's turn to nominate the person to take on this position. The front runner is Gerald Zackios, the current ambassador of Marshall Islands to the United States.

There will be ongoing work to further develop and embed the 'Blue Pacific' as a unifying narrative that speaks to the needs and aspirations of all members. However, this will take place in a context where there are multiple pressures on national governments, in domestic as well as foreign policy spheres. Divergences of approach when it comes to climate policy will continue to be a significant fault line at the meeting of PIF leaders. Vanuatu, the 2020 host, has already made it clear that the primary focus for that meeting will be climate change.

This item was first published on the DevPolicy blog of the Development Policy Centre, Australian National University 

Long walk to freedom

By Netani Rika

THERE was always only going to be one outcome when the people of Bougainville were given their inalienable right to choose the political future of the island chain.

Independence.

With an overwhelming 97.7 per cent of islanders voting for independence and a mere 2.3% choosing greater autonomy under  Papua New Guinea, the result speaks to a people who yearn for freedom.

In 1988 the island descended into anarchy after Bougainville Copper Limited – operators of the multi-billion dollar Panguna Mine – failed to heed the concerns of the people.

Poor working conditions, uneven distribution of profits, heavy handed tactics by the PNG Defence Force provided multiple catalysts for a 10-year civil war which cost as many as 15,000 lives.

Panguna – valued today at USD85billion – was Australia’s piggy bank with which it kept PNG afloat. And PNG, in desperate need for money for politicians’ slush funds for constituency development ran rough-shod over the locals.

And that was the fatal mistake that brought PNG to its knees and forced Australia to remove its military advisers, helicopter gunships and weapons from what threatened to become its Vietnam.

For the people of Bougainville, Panguna was not a funding facility for the central government in Port Moresby or Canberra.

Panguna has always been a legacy, held in trust by the women of the island for the people of today and the generations who will follow.

It is the women of the individual landowning units around the mine who will decide on how to proceed with the mine.

Asian businesses have started to line up and offer infrastructure projects, tourism investment and straight cash incentives to secure a slice of the mine when it reopens.

Local politician, Fidelis Semoso, is wary of the moves being made by unscrupulous investors.

“We have a perfect opportunity here to create a development model that reflects our values as a people,’’ Semoso said.

“Our people have spoken at the referendum, now we must design our future, not dictated to by foreign models which look only to exploit the natural resources.

“We must take only what is needed. We must develop roads and schools within reason and at every stage we must care for and protect the environment.’’

John Momis, President of the Autonomous Bougainville Government, is also wary of foreign businesses.

“Yes, they have been making offers and we must be very, very, careful,’’ Momis said.

“Our people have been through so much. We need wise leaders who will keep Bougainville and its future close to their hearts.’’

For now, discussions around Bougainville’s future will hinge on discussions between the government in Buka and Prime Minister James Marape in Port Moresby.

For the people of Bougainville that means talks on when PNG will hand over sovereignty, what reparation will be made for the 15,000 deaths in the civil war, a planned phasing out of non-Bougainville administrators on the island.

Once a deal has been negotiated, it will be placed before the PNG parliament.

Momis has been clear on his view that PNG must  rubber stamp the desires of the referendum.

“Only a mad parliament would fail to ratify the desires of the people when it is so clear,’’ Momis said.

Unfortunately, signals out of PNG are that there may be some objection in Parliament to a new sovereign nation.

Deputy Speaker of the Bougainville Parliament, Francesca Semoso, had this advice based on the 30-year conflict: “We are a peaceful, loving people. We care for all people but you must never disrespect us. That would be a grave mistake.’’

By NETANI RIKA in Port Moresby

AS Pacific fishing nations end their first week of discussions on tuna, the question of Target Reference Points loom large on the agenda.

What indicators establish the target fishery state that should be achieved and maintained on average?

It’s a point over which there have been hours of debate, argument and conflict at the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission for years – often without an amicable solution.

There a four species of tuna in the Western and Central Pacific – Skipjack, Yellowfin, Bigeye and Albacore.

For each species there are Target Reference Points which are part of a larger Harvest Strategy – the actual management of tuna stocks, fishing methods, conservation measures, scientific research.

But it’s the Target Reference Points where members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission which is currently in its 16th Regular Session are often trapped.

The larger fishing nations – China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia and the United States – attempt to wriggle free of scientific analysis indicating that stocks must be maintained at no less than 26 per cent of critical biomass.

Every year they challenge the science, push the boundaries and try to bully their way to a larger share of the Pacific tuna catch.

And every year the Pacific nations, guardians of 50 per cent of the world’s tuna stock must struggle to control the fishery, maintain a sustainable stock and make a little money.

If the 16th WCPFC Regular Session in Port Moresby can agree to Target Reference Points, it will then face the challenge of coming to an agreement on harvest strategies.

John Maifiti of the Pacific Island Tuna Industry Association is under no illusions about the enormity of the task at hand.

“We acknowledge the progress that has been made so far with the Target Reference Points for skipjack,” Maifiti said.

“Currently they don’t have any interim TRP for albacore and bigeye and this is what we want the commission to come up with and put it in place.’’

Fiji is one of the countries affected heavily by tuna migration and its Fisheries Minister, Commander Semi Koroilavesau, has spent the last three years pushing for specific reference points for albacore.

As chair of the WCPFC’s Albacore Roadmap Working Group, Koroilavesau indicated today that a TRP outcome would be his prime agenda in the next 12 months.

American Samoa, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Samoa and French Polynesia have indicated their support for Fiji’s approach to secure a Target Reference Point on albacore as soon as economically possible.

Maifiti said one of the issues of contention when attempting to agree on Target Reference Points was the difference between scientific advice and actual results shown by fishing fleets.

“At times the science says one thing, but the catch says something else – it doesn’t match up and that is one of our concerns as well,” Maifiti said.

“Even though all the science says that biologically the tuna species are in a healthy state, the next question to ask is, is there enough fish for the fishing vessels to catch and make enough money. I think that’s the issue we have currently.

“It’s very important that we push for this harvest strategy to manage the fisheries.’’

Maifiti has set those harvest strategies as the industry’s immediate priority.

But he warned that the WCPFC had worked very slowly in this area since an initial work plan was agreed in 2014.

“When they reviewed it in 2017, the progress was very low and they shifted it for another four years and there’s a high chance they won’t agree on compliance when the current measures end in two years,” Maifiti said.

“The important thing for the industry is to put in place the management measure for the four key resources – skipjack, bigeye, yellowfin and albacore.’’

Maifiti said the issue of harvest strategy was important for the sustainability and viability of the fisheries.

“It’s important for the fisheries for the commission to come up with a harvest strategy. They are the ones mandated to manage fisheries,” he said.

“Inside the Exclusive Economic Zones and at the national level the Pacific countries already have some strong management measures in place – control harvest measures.

“But on the high seas where the commission is responsible, that’s where we don’t have any management system. There’re no harvest strategies to have harvest control in place to measure fisheries.’’

Maifiti said the Forum Fisheries Agency had pushed for some time for concrete measures but Distant Water Fishing Nations – keep pushing back.

At the moment the industry doesn’t feel the impact of the current stock status because they are highly subsidised from the countries. Like now the cost for them is less than for Pacific fleets.

Early indications are that the European Union will be one of the WCPFC parties which will push back on the albacore measures and reference points.

The arrest warrant against former Papua New Guinea Prime Minister, Peter O’Neill has been withdrawn by police –  but the matter is still making its way through the courts.

The warrant related to alleged corruption investigations and was issued on 11 October, but O’Neill had challenged the action, saying it was defective.

PNG media report that police this week sought to withdraw the warrant, although O’Neill’s lawyers say this is just a tactic, and that police will just seek a fresh warrant. In response, the State says the former PM’s lawyers are just trying to drag the case out, and there are questions as to whether the whole matter is a case of abuse of power by the government.

The matter has been adjourned to this afternoon.

PNG journo reinstated

Two days after terminating his employment, Papua New Guinea’s EMTV has re-instated News and Current Affairs manager Neville Choi, and he says he will be back at work this morning.

Choi was sacked for what EMTV management alleged were human resources breaches.

However the action against the respected journalist created a storm of protest from his local and international colleagues and EMTV viewers.

The President of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), Kora Nou had urged the parties in to quickly meet and resolve the issue, and offered to act as a mediator.

The Pacific Freedom Forum, a media rights watchdog, took a stronger line:  “We stand in solidarity with Neville, who is a well respected and leading Pacific journalist who has mentored and trained journalists across his nation. We also call on PNG Communications Minister Renbo Paita --given his powers over board appointments for EMTV's parent company--  to support a swift and independent mediation between all parties to resolve an escalating issue ,” said PFF Chair Bernadette Carreon of Palau.

“Our concern at this time is that a quality news service cannot be suspended because news workers feel intimidated, unheard and unable to report without fear or favour,  in the current environment,” says Melanesia PFF co-chair Ofani Eremae of the Solomon Islands. 

Senior members of the EMTV newsroom, including  Meriba Tulo- the journalist named to replace him, called for his re-instatement and asked that EMTV’s Acting CEO be sidelined, as they “no longer have confidence in her leadersihip.”

In a statement, newsroom leaders Tulo,  Scott Waide and Sincha Dimara said: “The action to terminate Mr Choi is one that is wrong, and in direct challenge to the separation, and indepdence of the News Media Code of Ethics.”

Their support for Choi meant there was no news bulletin aired on Monday night.

EMTV's coverage of expenditure related to last year's APEC meeting and industrial action by the PNG Defence Force raised the government's ire.

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