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Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 19:41 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 19:41 | SYDNEY

Things I have changed my mind about this year

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23 December 2009 13:54

Something that never changes about Melanesia or the wider Pacific Islands region is its unpredictability. This gives me useful cover for my errors of prediction and changes of mind.

The major prediction I was wrong about was my belief that the economies of the Pacific Islands would all be hurt badly by the global financial and economic crisis. Some countries suffered big losses – particularly those dependent on remittances (Samoa and Tonga) and those dependent on one major export (Solomon Islands). GDP growth dropped across the region in 2009 but most economies still grew rather than contacted. The majority of Pacific Island countries did not experience the economic destruction that many developed countries did. 

I had thought Papua New Guinea would suffer from the decline in commodity prices but PNG survived the GEC relatively unscathed, albeit by drawing on its trust funds to compensate for lower world commodity prices. PNG even ended the year on a high, concluding a US$15 billion liquefied natural gas deal with Exxon Mobil.

The decline in tourism in late 2008 had sounded alarm bells for countries like Vanuatu and Fiji, dependent on tourism from Australia and New Zealand. But tourism rebounded and Australians and New Zealanders in ever larger numbers flocked to the Pacific this year on inexpensive package deals kinder on household budgets than travel to Europe or the US. Economies dependent on the tourism dollar were smiling through the global recession. 

My change of mind, like Graeme Dobell's, is related to Fiji. For most of the year, I have thought that Commodore Bainimarama could be influenced by cleverer strategies and engagement with key partners like Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, or by important institutions in Fiji applying pressure on him. As the year ends, I am convinced that the interim Prime Minister is completely impervious to any influence beyond his inner circle.

He has co-opted the media, stared down and weakened the once powerful and dominant Methodist Church, strengthened the security forces, resisted pressure from traditional chiefs, cut public sector funding, strangled debate on the economy and silenced the political parties. If this was Africa or the South America of old, similar efforts would have undoubtedly been accompanied by demonstrations, public riots, tear gas, extra-judicial killings and extreme hunger. Not in Fiji, where the population is passive if not completely acquiescent and where tourism arrivals have reached record levels in 2009.

Bainimarama is untroubled by international isolation, economic decline, the lack of new foreign investment or reports of fast growing poverty. While he may fulminate over Australian and New Zealand policies, he is cheered by daily plane-loads of Australians and New Zealanders arriving to holiday in the paradise that is Fiji. Few other military dictators could be so lucky.

Photo by Flickr user superciliousness, used under a Creative Commons license.

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