PRESENTER: The Australian Government has taken part in talks in Paris, aimed at opening the way to allow New Caledonia to become a full member of the Pacific Islands Forum. Currently, New Caledonia, like the other major French territory in the region, French Polynesia, has observer status at the forum, despite both being amongst the most heavily populated island states in the Pacific. Now, New Caledonia is keen to become a full member, and the government of French President Nicolas Sarkozy is supportive of the proposal.
Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs speaks with Pacific correspondent, Campbell Cooney.
CAMPBELL COONEY: France’s two major Pacific territories, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, both have populations of nearly 270,000 people each, figures well above that of most of the member nations of the Pacific Islands Forum.
Samoa’s population is estimated at just under 180,000 people. Some smaller island states like Tuvalu and Nauru are at around 10,000 people.
But the fact French Polynesia and New Caledonia are French Territories means they only have observer status at the forum and New Caledonia, for its part, is keen to become a full member.
It is a prospect that one of the forum’s largest members, Australia, is keen to look into.
Last week its Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Richard Marles, was in Paris to discuss it.
RICHARD MARLES: We met with Marie-Luce Penchard, who is the Minister for French Overseas Territories, and talked to her about the progress of the Noumea Accord in New Caledonia and the aspirations of both France and New Caledonia to see New Caledonia become a full member of the Pacific Islands Forum.
CAMPBELL COONEY: But in recent times both French territories have been the scenes of civil and political unrest. Last year, on the New Caledonian island of Mare, riots over the price of airfares, combined with disputes between landowner groups, left four people dead and many others injured, and political uncertainty has been a continuing issue in French Polynesia with governments changing so regularly that at times it is hard to say who is the territory’s president.
Richard Marles says those issues were raised in Paris but not in a vigorous way.
RICHARD MARLES: I think the way to put it is we are observing those issues but concern is too strong a word. The point we would make in relation to New Caledonia and French Polynesia is that what is occurring in those territories is occurring in accordance with the constitution.
You still have democratic governance, democratic practices and you have freedom of the press. I think we need to bear that in mind when we observe what is going on in those territories.
That said, obviously we watch with a keen interest. These are very important communities. Part of the way those collectivities are managed is obviously on the ground in Papeete and Noumea but part of it is managed by Paris and we're keen to understand how Paris sees the future the collectivities and how it sees the legislative framework and the constitutional arrangements for those collectivities.
CAMPBELL COONEY: Did you get a chance to raise some of the issues about how you feel about other Pacific issues and France’s position on those, such as the continuing fall-out with Fiji and the political situation there.
RICHARD MARLES: We did discuss broader issues around the Pacific and in that regard it is important for all of us to remember that France is a Pacific power. We do have an interest in talking to them about issues of the Pacific. That certainly includes Fiji, but it doesn't just include Fiji. It includes the progress of RAMSI in Solomon Islands, it includes the state of maritime surveillance within the Pacific in terms of fisheries. Disaster management is another area where we have close cooperation with France.
CAMPBELL COONEY: Right now Mr Marles is in Guyana in the Caribbean for the meeting of the Caribbean community known as CARICOM. With over 15 member nations and dependencies CARICOM is the grouping of countries in the region where English is the primary language but also includes French speaking Haiti and also Suriname where Dutch is the major language.
CARICOM is often described as that region’s equivalent of the Pacific Islands Forum
RICHARD MARLES: There is a lot in common. There are some differences but there is a lot in common. Both regions participate in AOSIS, the alliance of small island states, which really played a game changing role in the climate change conference in Durbin at the end of last year.
CAMPBELL COONEY: What is CARICOM doing that you've seen and heard about that you think could work well in your own region here and the Pacific Islands Forum. Is there any one particular thing you've seen?
RICHARD MARLES: Well I think it is fair to say that the progress towards developing a single economic market is much further in the Caribbean than what it is in the Pacific. There is still a way to go here in that but there is a lot of work being done on economic integration in the Caribbean.
Of course, in the Pacific we are moving down that path, as well, with the Pacer Plus negotiations, but you come here and you really do see what can be achieved
There is a lot in common. Regionalism is a movement that is occurring here in the Caribbean, just as it is in the Pacific. That is the case when talking about fisheries agencies where there’s much in common between the work being done in the Caribbean and what' being done in the Pacific. That’s probably an area where I think Pacific is leading. Environmental protection, again, there are agencies in the Pacific and in the Caribbean which are working closely together, and we're very much encouraging that kind of collaboration.
Even the experiences of the University of the West Indies compared to the University of the South Pacific. These are two universities which are, I guess, together unique within the world as being universities which are multi-country universities and they have very similar experiences. I think much can be learned between the two regions.
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