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MSG not good for Fiji's diet

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COMMENTS

18 December 2009 09:36

I was nodding along with Graeme Dobell's post on Tuesday about Australian policy, Fiji and the Pacific until he mentioned the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG). I don't agree that the MSG is a serious rival to the Pacific Islands Forum.

It has four principal members (the fifth member being the Kanak independence activists of New Caledonia, the FLNKS), a small secretariat and few resources. All four members – Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu — have historically put more of their limited diplomatic efforts into engagement with the Pacific Islands Forum than into the MSG. 

The MSG Free Trade Agreement has not yet contributed to better economic outcomes for members. Divisions between Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu over the involvement of West Papuans in the MSG show that the organisation is not united on a policy front. Solomon Islands' focus will continue to lie with the Pacific Islands Forum over the MSG, thanks to the Forum's support for the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands.

Commodore Bainimarama has more time to focus his Government's energies on the MSG now that Fiji has been suspended from the Forum and from the Commonwealth, and I agree with Graeme that he is trying to build up the organisation’s influence in the region. But any organisation is only the sum of its parts and until all of its members prioritise membership of the MSG over their membership of the wider regional organisation, it will never be a credible rival to the Pacific Islands Forum. That MSG leaders did not even uphold their promises to Fiji at the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders' meeting in Cairns shows they are not prepared to take that step.

Although Chinese funding of the MSG Secretariat has created questions about rising Chinese influence in the region, in reality China was not the preferred sponsor for the MSG, who in the form of the Vanuatu Government first approached Australia and other donors nine years ago with requests for assistance in building and staffing the MSG Secretariat. 

There is no doubt China's relationship with some MSG members will benefit from having helped the MSG out of a funding hole but it does not follow that the MSG will become the regional organisation of choice, especially for the smaller countries of the region, which hold little interest for Melanesian leaders. China is also a very generous contributor to the Pacific Islands Forum, so if anything, it is having a bet both ways on influencing the region's institutions.

A reading of the Agreement Establishing the Melanesian Spearhead Group shows Fiji is already in violation of it. Articles 5 and 6 are the most interesting, committing the parties to:

  • Promote and respect human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law.
  • Recognise that democracy based on the rule of law and transparent and accountable governance is an integral part of sustainable development.
  • Affirm that democratic principles underpin the organisation of the state to ensure the legitimacy of its authority, the legality of its actions reflected in its constitutional, legislative and regulatory system.
  • Upholding an independent judiciary and legal system and an executive which is fully subject to the law.
  • Good governance involving clear decision-making procedures in public authorities.

The fact that Fiji, which openly flouts the principles of the MSG, will next year take over the chair of the organisation, makes it even more imperative that the other members move quickly to demonstrate the integrity of the MSG. The MSG could earn the admiration and support of the region if its leaders persuaded Bainimarama to participate in a dialogue that resulted in a return to at least some of the democratic principles and freedoms the MSG claims to espouse. 

The MSG could achieve what the Pacific Islands Forum has failed to do. Until it confront this challenge, it will not present a serious claim to regional leadership.

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