The annual Pacific Islands Forum finished over the weekend with a visit by top level representatives from China and the United States.
Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for the Pacific, Richard Marles is enroute to Paris, but he spoke to Bruce Hill from the airport.
Bruce began by asking him about the meeting between the island member states of the Forum and Fiji which will take place in Papua New Guinea shortly, and what Australia's, attitude to that is.
RICHARD MARLES: Firstly, every country in the Pacific has had its own way of communicating with Fiji and we're completely relaxed about that. But, every country in the Pacific has also made clear the democratic values are a core set of values for the Pacific Islands Forum and Fiji currently doesn't uphold that and doesn't meet that standard. That's why the position was taken not to have Fiji return to the Forum now.
But, the meeting of the ACP group of countries is happening in PNG and it was felt that was an opportunity to have Fiji in a different forum and to allow dialogue to occur at that level, which is the right calibration given that what we've seen is some progress in Fiji, but there's more progress to go.
BRUCE HILL: Is this in any sense the other island states repudiating the approach of Australia and New Zealand to Fiji?
RICHARD MARLES: Not, at all. The approach that was taken was the subject of the leader's retreat which I attended and I was completely relaxed with this course of events, as I know New Zealand was as well.
The point is this, Fiji has made some positive steps forward this year. We've said this repeatedly. It is an important process going on with the Constitutional Commission, which is being chaired by Professor Yash Ghai. But there remains more work to be done in terms of democracy fully returning to Fiji, having freedom of the press and having the totality of human rights that you would expect in a democracy.
Until that is the case, it is difficult to have Fiji back to the Forum. But it is right to acknowledge that some steps in the right direction have been made and to calibrate a response. This is how it was decided and I think it's very appropriate.
BRUCE HILL: Now Australia went to this forum with a very interesting and well funded initiative for the Empowerment of Women, trying to get more women into parliaments in the South Pacific. How well was that received by the Pacific Island leaders?
RICHARD MARLES: I think it was very well received. What came from that was a declaration from the leaders around the empowerment of women in the Pacific which, in the fullness of time, will be regarded as one of the seminal moments of Pacific history and women's Pacific history. The declaration at this forum is a step change in the attitude towards women in the Pacific. I think that was very important.
As to our initiative, there was a great sense of appreciation that Australia was prepared to make such a significant commitment to this important issue.
Everyone understands that empowerment of women is very much a significant human rights issue, arguably the most significant human rights issue in the world today. But it's a development issue as well. You need to harness all the powers and capabilities of a full half of the population if you intend to develop. Show me a country which empowers its women and I will show you a country which is empowering itself. And that was the real sense that people had about the need to put a focus on this. There was a lot of symbolism about doing it at this Forum. Of course, Julia Gillard was there as Australia's first female Prime Minister, Michelle Bachelet, the Executive Director of UN Women was also at the forum and, on the last day, we had US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, attend the forum as well. So in the presence of three great women statesmen, it was a very important statement to make.
BRUCE HILL: Of course, Prime Minister Gillard had to leave early because of the tragic deaths of the Australian Servicemen in Afghanistan. Did that put a damper over proceedings that the Australian Prime Minister couldn't be there for the whole forum?
RICHARD MARLES: Well, it was certainly a real pity that Prime Minister Gillard was not able to attend the leader's retreat. This is the premier engagement that she has with the Pacific every year, as it is, of course the premier gathering of leaders for the Pacific every year. I know she was deeply regretful of the need to leave. But having said that, it was completely understood by all the leaders of the forum that Prime Minister Gillard's place at this time of national tragedy in Australia was back home, back home speaking to the families of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.
I was overwhelmed by the sense of condolence shown towards Australia by all the Pacific leaders. This was a time where you really felt that in a time of Australia's need, we had good friends around us. It's when you know who your friends are.
BRUCE HILL: Looking at the final communiqué, there's an awful lot of bread and butter work that gets done at the Forum that doesn't make the headlines, things like climate change and fishing, things like that and that's just as important as the sexy politics that gets the headlines, isn't it?
RICHARD MARLES: That's absolutely right. The two that you just mentioned, climate change and fisheries, there are no more important issues facing the Pacific right now. Climate change is of course a huge issue around the world, but for the people of the Pacific it is an existential issue and combating it, providing global advocacy around it, are key issues that the Pacific is focused on. So as you would expect there was much discussion around that during the leaders retreat and during the Forum itself.
Fisheries are the principal source for most of the Pacific Island Forum countries and we need to look at better ways to raise appropriate revenue through those fisheries. Right now, the percentage of revenue made from those fisheries that ends back in those home countries is really very small. We need to be doing more work to try and increase the share of revenue the countries get, given it is their resource. But, equally, the fisheries need to be managed in a sustainable way. We need to make sure that there are marine reserves around the Pacific so that it is a sustainable ocean and there is a legacy for future generations. There is a lot of discussion around that as well.
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